Cancer: the focus now is on tailor-made drugs
Upwards of 40,000 people are expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year
Photograph: Getty Images
One in three people will develop cancer at some point in their lifetime and more than 40,000 people will be diagnosed with the disease this year with figures increasing to 43,000 next year and 46,000 the year after.
Although 40 per cent of cancer cases are thought to be preventable, numbers are growing and this is a sobering thought, particularly as everyone is affected by cancer in one way or other throughout their life.
But research into more effective means of treating and ultimately eradicating the disease is ongoing both globally and here at home.
“When the ICS was established in 1963 almost everyone who was diagnosed with cancer died from the disease, but thanks to research, 54 per cent of cancer patients are now cured,” he says. “There are currently 86 researchers in laboratories around the country working on different treatment projects and we are always striving to find new advances.
“There is currently a lot of work being done in the area of immunotherapy, breast cancer, prostate cancer and blood cancer research. But one of the biggest programmes we are working on is the personalisation of cancer care – this includes prevention, early detection, treatment and dose and duration of medicine. It also looks at the management of after-care and outcomes so patients are thriving rather than just surviving.”
Tumours vary between cancers and individuals so researchers are developing new ways to target these differences and scientific advances mean researchers can explore and pinpoint differences in tumours through DNA analysis.
It is hoped that this latest research into personalised cancer testing can help customise treatment to each patient’s biological needs as there is no “quick fix” for cancer.
“Cancer is not one single disease and not only is every case different, but so is every patient so there isn’t one single tablet or treatment programme to suit everyone,” says Dr O’Connor. “But we are working on identifying the genes which are causing malignancy and the drugs which work best to combat them.”
As well as working towards beating cancer, researchers are also looking at ways to help patients to recover their lives after they have survived the disease.
“Once people have successfully been treated for cancer, one in four is left disabled,” says Dr O’Connor. “Some live their lives in pain, others are left with an unbearable fatigue which means they cannot return to work and some men who have recovered from prostate cancer have to live with sexual problems.
“So our researchers are trying to find ways to ensure that people who have survived cancer can also live full and healthy lives.”
But while we have some of the best researchers in the world, the oncology expert says more funding is needed to ensure continued success.
“We have some of the top cancer-treating clinicians in the world and most have trained abroad in leading research centres,” he says. “But investment is always needed and part of the challenge for future research is the fact that there is only a limited pot of money which will be spent in areas where there is more of a chance to make a change.
“For example, research into pancreatic cancer is going on in Dublin and Cork but it is very difficult to treat with only 7 per cent of patients surviving for five years, so with limited funds available decisions have to be made regarding where the most change can be made.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today without investment and as long as this continues we will work with our global partners in the battle against cancer – there is no easy fix but every bit of investment means a new study.”
The ICS is funding a number of collaborative cancer research initiatives focused specifically on personalised cancer treatment. These strategic initiatives are going beyond the laboratory to ask new questions and look for answers which will ultimately save more lives and lead to improved treatments.
Current initiatives focus on breast, prostate and blood cancers and the potential to develop targeted or tailor-made drugs and precision treatments to treat patients with different needs.
Every year, 2,800 women in Ireland are diagnosed with breast cancer and 680 die from the disease. In 2013 the ICS launched Breast-Predict to bring clinicians, scientists, nurses and statisticians together to fight breast cancer.
Blood Cancer Network Ireland
Blood cancers make up some 10 per cent of all cancers and are the fourth most common cause of cancer-related deaths in Ireland. In 2015 the ICS launched BCNI, a national clinical research network offering early- stage clinical trials to blood cancer patients who will receive access to the latest drugs and treatments. The Science Foundation of Ireland and ICS are investing €2.65 million in this research network.
Each year more than 3,300 men in Ireland are diagnosed with prostate cancer and in 2014, the Movember Foundation together with the ICS invested €750,000 and launched iProspect to develop personalised therapies for prostate cancer patients.The vision is to identify new biomarkers in advanced prostate cancer to allow doctors to make rapid decisions as to the best course of treatment for each patient.