World Cancer Day 2015: 3 leading cancer specialists discuss their work
Wednesday, 04 February, 2015
World Cancer Day 2015 is taking place under the tagline: Cancer – Not beyond us. The campaign emphasises a positive and proactive approach to the fight against cancer; highlighting that solutions do exist across the continuum of cancer care, and that they are within our reach.
At SBI and UCD Conway Institute, our cancer research groups focus on identifying new targets for cancer diagnosis and treatment that will improve the prognosis for patients. We asked our senior scientists how their research teams are rising to the challenge that cancer presents us with today.
The global cancer epidemic is huge and is set to rise. Currently, 8.2 million people die from cancer worldwide every year. However, more than one third of these deaths are preventable, and if detected early enough, many cancers are curable.
“We are meeting the challenge cancer presents us with by tackling cancer at its very roots”, says Professor Walter Kolch, Director, Systems Biology Ireland and UCD Conway Institute.
“There are several hundred different types of cancer but they all have one thing in common. Cancer can be perceived as faults in the communication networks that control and coordinate the behaviour of the cells in our bodies.
"The human body contains about 1000 billion cells. That’s 10,000 times more parts than in a space shuttle, the most complex piece of engineering humans ever have built. Imagine its control systems get scrambled by faulty signals being constantly fed in. This is akin to the genetic mutations that occur in cancer and scramble the messages in biological signalling networks.
"With advances in genome sequencing, we can now comprehensively identify the mutations in cancers. However, we still know very little about the messages these mutations scramble, and therefore how we can use mutation mapping to design new therapies for cancer patients. This is at the heart of what Systems Biology Ireland is doing to combat cancer.
"We are using a combination of biological experimentation, clinical data, and advanced computational simulation methods to understand how genetic mutations in cancer scramble the control mechanisms in biological communication networks.
"In particular, we focus on skin cancers (melanoma), on breast cancer with funding from the Irish Cancer Society; and on colorectal cancer, and childhood cancers with the help of EU funding. In each of these areas, we are developing new approaches to improve the treatment of these cancers by tackling root causes and by personalising therapies to each individual patient.”
This strategy of personalised medicine is also one shared by Conway Fellow, Professor William Gallagher, Director, BREAST-PREDICT, the Irish Cancer Society's first Collaborative Cancer Research Centre and Professor of Cancer Biology, UCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science.
‘We are meeting the challenge cancer presents us with by harnessing all of the information available on breast cancer patients and their tumours, and using this to predict how best to treat breast cancer patients according to the individual characteristics of their own cancer.
"This personalised or 'precision' medicine approach has been made possible by the rapid progress in the molecular understanding of breast cancer over the past decade. BREAST-PREDICT has been collecting tumour samples and patient information from breast cancer patients around Ireland for storage in a biobank and database.
"Using these valuable resources, we will characterise each individual breast cancer, and investigate how cancer changes with time as it is treated; why some patients respond to a particular drug and others don't, and whether drugs that they may have been taking prior to their diagnosis has any effect on the outcome of their cancer treatment.
"BREAST-PREDICT uses novel biological, mathematical and computational approaches to ask these questions, and our team includes many of the top breast cancer researchers in Ireland. Over the past number of years, the number of drugs available to treat breast cancer patients has increased dramatically. Our goal is to predict which of these drugs each patient should receive in order to help them to beat their disease more effectively.”
The emphasis on national collaborative networks is echoed by Conway Fellow, Professor William Watson, President, Irish Association for Cancer Research who was instrumental is initiating the Prostate Cancer Research Consortium (PCRC) in 2004. This network brings like-minded researchers from different academic institutions and hospitals across Ireland together in a co-ordinated way to maximise research potential in prostate cancer with a clear focus on the patient.
“Bringing together researchers from different centres and different disciplines with complementary, value- added skills provides an excellent environment to tackle important questions in relation to prostate cancer diagnosis, prognosis and new therapies.
"We have integrated biological data on patients from a range of advanced techniques such as tissue imaging and proteomics to build a unique picture of their individual disease. This has allowed us to identify new biomarkers that are now undergoing international validation studies.
"Building on this network, we have attracted international groups through funding from EU FP-7, Movember and the Prostate Cancer Foundation to create global networks such as TOPCaP (Transdisciplinary Prostate Cancer Partnership).
"Today, we are meeting the challenge cancer presents us with through international collaborative networks that allow us to work together to solve the complex problem of cancer biology. Importantly, it also allows us to train the next generation of scientists and clinicians who will continue this process and implement the new diagnostics and treatments strategies.
"People represent one of the most important components to solving complex problems and these networks provide opportunities to contribute to the global cancer discussion. They also provide the vehicle through which young researchers can learn in a supportive environment of open discussion on cancer biology and its translational potential.”