Clinical trials are the way forward for radiotherapy

Research Lives: Prof Sinead Brennan, radiation oncologist at St Luke’s and St James’s Hospitals and Trinity St James’s Cancer Institute

What is your research about?

I’m a radiation oncologist, which means I use radiotherapy to treat cancer. My main research interest is in clinical trials for patients with head and neck cancer and breast cancer.

What do you wish people knew about radiotherapy?

That half of all cancer patients require radiotherapy at some point in their cancer journey, and over 40 per cent of cancer cures are as a result of radiotherapy. Despite this, most people don’t know very much about radiotherapy or how it works. People have heard a lot more about cancer surgery and chemotherapy, but radiotherapy is a crucial treatment for many patients, so I worked with the Irish Cancer Society on an educational video for patients and their families about radiotherapy.


What kind of research do you carry out?

I’m involved in clinical trials in radiotherapy, where patients take part in studies to improve treatments and outcomes. I am the clinical lead for the Irish Research Radiation Oncology Group, which co-ordinates all radiotherapy clinical trials in Ireland. We are funded by the Health Research Board and partnered with Trinity College Dublin.

Many of the trials aim to improve cancer cure rates, for example by looking at new ways to combine drugs with highly technical radiotherapy, and others focus on reducing long-term side effects of radiotherapy in order to improve patients’ quality of life after cancer treatment.

Tell us about a recent trial.

Ireland took part in the DARS trial, which was published recently in the Lancet Oncology. It showed that if radiotherapy is designed in a certain way, we can prevent swallowing problems after treatment.

Many important events in life involve food, and being able to enjoy meals with family and friends is hugely important for our quality of life. Radiotherapy is constantly evolving, and improvements in technology and how radiotherapy is designed and delivered have been proven to have a real impact on patients’ chances of cure and treatment outcomes.

Why do you think clinical trials are the way forward?

Patients who are treated in hospitals that are active in high-quality clinical trials have better outcomes. So all patients benefit. The Irish National Cancer strategy states that every patient has a right to access a clinical trial, and yet only approximately two in every 100 cancer patients in Ireland are currently treated as part of a clinical trial. We need more investment in clinical trials infrastructure in Ireland to improve this.

Why do all patients benefit?

It’s because in order to be part of a clinical trial, the hospital has to prove that they are able to provide treatment according to international standards of excellence.

I was excited to set up the Irish trials group, IRROG, so that all patients have the opportunity to be involved in clinical trials no matter where they live in Ireland. Our vision is to improve cancer outcomes through equal access for patients to high-quality clinical trials, such that the right patient can have the right trial in the right place.

Who or what inspires you in your work?

My sister died of cancer aged 39, and she continues to inspire me to improve treatments for cancer patients. Today’s clinical trials are often tomorrow’s cures.

And how do you like to spend your time outside of work?

I enjoy time with my husband, Fergal, and our three children. I love our holidays on Valentia Island in Kerry. I like running and I’m doing the Dublin City Marathon in October for The Friends of St Luke’s and the Cancer Fund for Children.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation