Cancer programme brings together top Irish researchers for first time
Precision Oncology Ireland is supported by Science Foundation Ireland
Minister for Innovation Heather Humphreys with Lucia Garcia, postdoc research fellow, UCD
A new cancer research collaboration aims to bring about better diagnostics, personalised treatment and faster drug discovery and development.
Precision Oncology Ireland (POI) brings together five Irish universities, six Irish cancer research charities, and 10 companies with the shared aim of developing new diagnostics and therapeutics for the personalised treatment of cancer.
The initiative is supported by a €5 million investment from the Science Foundation Ireland Strategic Partnership Programme, matched by a €6.9 million investment from the charity and industry partners making up the POI consortium. This is the first time that researchers, charities and industry have joined forces in this way.
Personalised or precision medicine uses data about a patient’s genes along with additional information on their cancer, to understand the unique pathways of a disease or treatment response in that person. This new science allows doctors to prescribe the right treatment in a timely fashion, saving the resources and time which are currently wasted in trial and error methods.
“Precision Oncology Ireland is a vision come true. It unites the top cancer research experts in Ireland, the leading cancer charities, and companies at the cutting edge of diagnostics and drug discovery,” says POI director, Prof Walter Kolch. “We believe that this unique consortium lays out the blueprint for how cancer research and cancer care will look in Ireland in the 21st century.
“In POI, we will use cutting-edge technologies to generate unique genetic and molecular profiles for each patient’s cancer,” he adds. “Our key competitive advantage lies in the innovative computational methods we use to make sense of these profiles and decipher what drives each individual cancer.”
Explaining the value of personalised cancer treatment, Prof Kolch points out that even very good cancer drugs can have response rates of between 10 and 30 per cent. “It is not because the drug isn’t good, it’s because we are all different. We always try to treat the patients rather than the disease and new technologies are allowing us to do this with cancer. If we can improve therapeutic efficiency, we will reduce the delays involved in finding the right treatment and reduce side effects for patients as well. Even if the treatment doesn’t work the patient still suffers the side effects.”
“We believe that POI will accelerate the development of new diagnostics and therapies for cancer and allow these advances to reach cancer patients in Ireland earlier,” adds deputy director Prof William Gallagher. “We will also involve patients in this work from the beginning, to ensure that their voice is heard in determining the most relevant research priorities.”
He points out that the industry partners are not only from the multinational community. “POI will enhance the research capacity of Irish biotech companies by providing them with access to expertise, infrastructure and technological capabilities which will enable them to effectively compete in global markets,” he says.
“One example is Cell Stress Discoveries, a spin-out from NUI Galway founded with the goal of developing therapeutic candidate molecules that will combat chemotherapy resistance. Their research focuses on how cancer cells sense cellular stress, and how this can affect their response to chemotherapy. Within POI, this company is partnering with Irish researchers to develop novel drugs to block this stress signalling and improve chemotherapy response.”
OncoMark, an indigenous Irish biotech and University College Dublin spin-out, will use POI to incorporate genetic and immune-histological features into its OncoMasTR diagnostic platform creating a product that it says goes far beyond competitors’ products. “The OncoMasTR technology was CE marked in mid-2018 for use in prognostic stratification of early stage breast cancer patients, with a view towards triaging patients as to whether they could avoid unnecessary chemotherapy,” he adds.
Queen’s University spin-out pHion Therapeutics is another Irish partner. “We are delighted to be one of many partners in POI,” says chief executive Prof Helen McCarthy. “POI will be a huge boost to understanding and developing solutions for the treatment of many cancers. Together with Prof Tracy Robson, we are committed to developing a therapy for ovarian cancer. We are excited to support and work in close collaboration with RCSI [Royal College of Surgeons Ireland], combining our innovative peptide drug delivery system with Prof Robson’s FKBPL technology to translate this ovarian cancer therapy towards the clinic.”
Charity partner Breakthrough Cancer Research aims to disrupt cancer at every part of the patient journey. “As we focus on poorer prognosis cancers, we are only too aware, that better diagnostics, more effective, targeted and less toxic treatments are urgently needed,” says chief executive Orla Dolan. “A one-size fits-all approach to overcome cancer in all its complexity is not enough. This is why we are a committed partner in POI. The challenge of cancer demands visionary thinking and collective efforts to accelerate progress and POI will deliver more precise and personalised patient care. We know patients and families are waiting.”