Cancer Society to set up 'virtual' research centres


THE IRISH Cancer Society is to create a number of “virtual” research centres that will bring together large groups of scientists all targeting a specific type of cancer. It also plans a national cancer research centre aimed at developing cancer treatments, the society’s new director of research has said.

The society appointed its first head of research, Prof John Fitzpatrick, on January 1st. He wants to replicate the success of the virtual Prostate Cancer Research Consortium that has brought together three universities so far and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Another three are seeking to join.

Scientists in this “virtual” consortium do not share labs or offices, they remain in their host institutions. The teams co-ordinate their efforts, however, and bring a wide range of skills and expertise to bear on a single disease target.

“This is unique in Ireland,” Prof Fitzpatrick said.

It has proved highly successful in focusing research on specific forms of the disease. It has also seen the creation of a tissue biobank for prostate cancer that supports the work in the various labs.

Prof Fitzpatrick said he wanted to see this repeated, with funding from the society. This would see about €1 million being made available to successfully bidding consortiums over a five-year period.

He would hope to see five centres established targeting important cancers here such as breast, colo-rectal and lung, he added.

The key is that each bidder must form a consortium involving a number of centres and a critical mass of accomplished researchers.

This would also “maximise the outcomes and benefits” of the investment in research.

While the society would be the main funder of these virtual centres, external money could also become available. “These virtual centres would become a conduit for money,” Prof Fitzpatrick said.

Once the virtual centres are established it should be possible to pursue a second element of Prof Fitzpatrick’s vision for cancer research here – the building of a cancer research centre.

This would be a “bricks and mortar” centre, not virtual and would provide labs and research space. It would have the facilities needed to take research discoveries through all the steps from translation through to bedside.

It would also support epidemiological research and the capacity to conduct drug trials as needed, he said.

“This is something down the line,” he acknowledged. It was dependent on being able to raise the investment money either from local sources or abroad.

The physical centre would probably be based on a university campus or the grounds of a hospital and would be similar to the highly successful cancer research unit based at Belfast City Hospital he added.

Work was already under way to make the virtual and the bricks and mortar centres a reality. “The sooner we get the virtual centres up and running the better,” he said.

The society is one of Ireland’s most successful research charities and made €3.1 million available for research during 2011, according to Prof Fitzpatrick said.

He has taken a strong view of the value of maintaining local medical research. “Quality of cancer care is dependent on the quality of cancer research.

“We are attempting to move forward part of the Irish Cancer Society’s mission, to be active in supporting research.

“We are funding scholarships and fellowships in scientific research and translational research and that is what the aim is, to get the research going and inspiring it. These people are really dedicated and are advancing research in the fight against cancer.”

Prof Fitzpatrick recently retired as professor of surgery at University College Dublin and as a consultant urologist at the Mater Hospital in Dublin.