Case studies

Improving Cancer Treatment


Professor Richard Kennedy, Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology

Paul Harkin and Richard Kennedy are at the heart of an imaginative research partnership that is delivering dramatic results for Queen’s University, for a top pharmaceutical company and, above all, for the care of cancer patients.

Paul is Professor of Molecular Oncology at Queen’s, but he is also President and Managing Director of Craigavonbased Almac Diagnostics. Richard is Vice President and Medical Director of the company. He holds the additional post at Queen’s of McClay Professor of Experimental Cancer Medicine. The initiative is based at the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology. More than £4.4m has been invested through InvestNI and Almac in a three-year programme to help develop more effective tests for certain forms of cancer.

Both men are graduates of Queen’s. After gaining his PhD in the genetics of ovarian cancer, Paul went to Harvard Medical School and did a postdoctoral placement at Massachusetts General Hospital. Four years later, he returned to Queen’s where he would eventually become a professor. Along the way he and the Dean of Medicine, Professor Paddy Johnston, formed a spin-out company that was taken over by Almac in 2004 and became Almac Diagnostics.

Richard’s PhD is in molecular biology and he became a specialist registrar in medical oncology. He also spent a period at Harvard, working as an instructor in medicine, focussing on predictive tests. His foremost research interest is in personalised medicine, and he returned to Northern Ireland as Head of Research for Almac Diagnostics because they were interested in getting into that field. He says, ‘People with advanced disease are treated with chemotherapy but the response rates are low – 20 or 30 percent - so the majority of people who receive chemotherapy aren’t benefitting from it. It seems there are certain patients who benefit from certain drugs but we don’t generally know that beforehand. We give what seems to work for the majority. ‘But cancer medicine has changed over the last five to ten years. Increasingly we’re trying to target the drugs to specific people. The idea is that a cancer that has a specific problem with its DNA may be sensitive to a particular drug and resistant to another drug. So if you know that abnormality exists, then you may tailor the treatment to the patient.’

Another exciting development is in the treatment of stage two colon cancer where new tests have been devised which can detect the likelihood of recurrence of disease in patients who have undergone surgery. Richard explains, ‘Stage two colon cancer can be cured but 25 percent of people develop recurrent disease within five years. Now there’s good evidence that if you analyse the DNA of the tumour at the time of presentation you can predict where this is likely to be the case and give that patient additional treatment to try to prevent it from happening.’

This molecular test has been validated and published in the journal of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. But more than that, as Paul points out, ‘the test has been licensed to a USA diagnostics company with the intent of releasing it in the USA. We are also thinking about how we’ll develop this in Europe. It all means that it’s a commercial success for a project that originated and was driven here in Northern Ireland through this collaboration between Almac and Queen’s.’

There is already a significant relationship between Almac and Queen’s. The late founder of the company, Sir Allen McClay, was a significant benefactor of the University – the McClay Library is striking evidence – and the link remains with the McClay Foundation, the charitable trust.

Paul sees the relationship being strengthened still further. ‘The intent would be to continue this collaboration long term. We would expect this programme to be successful so we would see it running in three-year cycles. The success of the programme will provide mutual benefits. Almac will have certain things that it wants to do with the output of the research but a lot of the data being generated can be utilised here and can lead to funding for the University from additional sources, leading to new programmes. ‘All of it means additional valuable investment for Northern Ireland. We definitely see this as the beginning of a long journey.’