Changing the landscape of cancer research across the Island of Ireland through collaboration


Minister Simon Harris, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science of Ireland opened the All-Island Cancer Research Institute (AICRI) Showcase – Vision and Progress event at the Herbert Park Hotel, Dublin on 27 September 2023.

The purpose of this event is to highlight the achievements of AICRI over the past year, to share its future plans and engage with a range of stakeholders from academia, industry, the clinic and those with a lived experience of cancer. It brings together the cancer research community on the island of Ireland to discuss its strategy going forward and show how AICRI can align with cancer care and cancer research at a national level in Ireland and Northern Ireland.  It will explore future opportunities that can benefit those involved in cancer research across the island and help strengthen North-South relationships and develop new ones. 

AICRI is a rapidly emerging virtual institute which is creating an overarching framework for cancer research across the island of Ireland. Since October 2020, AICRI has brought together ten academic institutions and multiple other stakeholders from the healthcare sector, cancer patients, cancer charities, industry partners and government agencies. It has a broad research programme from cancer prevention to cancer diagnosis and treatment to survivorship and quality of life.  

In March 2022, AICRI received its foundation stone funding with a €4 million award from the Shared Island Fund as a Strand III (Partnerships of Scale) award under the first round of the HEA North-South Research Programme. The Higher Education Authority administers the North-South Research Programme on behalf of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. AICRI and cancer research on the island of Ireland has benefited immensely from the North-South Research Programme, accounting for almost €13 million and one third of all funding under this groundbreaking scheme.

This award enabled an all-Island doctoral and postdoctoral research training programme in precision cancer medicine (AICRIstart ). Led by Prof. William Gallagher (University College Dublin) and Prof. Mark Lawler (Queen’s University Belfast), the programme trains ten doctoral students and ten postdoctoral fellows with significant expertise in precision cancer medicine. By bringing together ten academic institutions on the island of Ireland (UCD, TCD, RCSI, TU Dublin, DCU, QUB, UU, UoG, UL and UCC) in this foundational initiative, AICRIstart will catalyse an unique all-island network of excellence in cancer research. 

Minister Harris said “I am delighted to provide an opening address today at this key event which is summarising the amazing progress that the All-Island Cancer Research Institute has made over the last couple of years. This cross-border research collaboration reinforces North-South links and helps to establish new relationships in the cancer research community across the island of Ireland. 10 academic institutions and multiple stakeholders across the entire island of Ireland are working towards a common purpose, which is to better understand cancer and convert this information rapidly into effective diagnostics and therapeutics, as well as help those with a lived experience of cancer. Key funding from the HEA North-South Research Programme has provided the foundations of this inspiring collaboration, which is transforming how cancer research is performed on our island to improve the lives of our citizens.”.

Commenting on the event, Professor William Gallagher, Professor of Cancer Biology at University College Dublin and Co-Lead of AICRI said: “AICRI is building an overarching framework for cancer research both in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is about creating a community, an attractive ecosystem to carry out world leading cancer research for the benefit of patients and wider public.”

Two other major cross-border cancer research awards (each €4 million) were funded under Strand II of the HEA North-South Research Programme, one relating to digital health (led by Prof. Aedin Culhane at UL and Prof. Mark Lawler at QUB) and the other relating to liquid biopsies (led by Prof. Lorraine O’Driscoll at TCD and Prof. Paul Mullen at QUB). 

Prof. Mark Lawler, Professor of Digital Health at QUB and co-lead of the Strand II eHealth Hub for Cancer project, presented findings of a recent landmark study led by Queen’s University Belfast that has shown how precision medicine can be a cheaper and more efficient way to treat cancer.

Professor Lawler explained: “This landmark study highlights how precision medicine can deliver affordable care for cancer patients. Moving towards a precision oncology Companion Diagnostic (CDx)-guided approach can deliver health benefits at a potentially affordable cost, including in the development phase, lowering expensive clinical trial attrition rates and sparing patients from those treatments that are ineffective and may have significant side effects. If we don’t deploy a CDx-guided approach we are missing a huge opportunity to deliver the best, most affordable care to our patients.”