Professor Joe O'Sullivan, Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology
Like many clinical academics working for Queen’s, Professor Joe O’Sullivan serves two institutions. In his case he has responsibility to the University and to the Belfast Trust through his work at the Cancer Centre at the City Hospital. Above all he has responsibility to patients – and he is fulfilling that through clinical research in his specialist field, prostate cancer.
‘It is fundamental,’ he says. ‘As a clinical academic doctor, I see patients, most of whom are in clinical trials of some kind. To give treatment properly, it must include research and if we’re not doing clinical research either in new drugs or testing new ways of doing things we’re not doing our job as oncologists properly.’
A graduate of UCD Medical School, Joe’s focus on prostate cancer developed during time spent working at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. ‘That’s where I saw the value of clinical research. The model at the Royal Marsden was the model by which I try to practise now. It was a mark of quality.’ His journey to Belfast began when he met Professor Patrick Johnston at an oncology conference in Chicago in 2003. ‘I was very impressed by Paddy’s vision for a comprehensive cancer centre in Belfast and I accepted his challenge to take on the development of radiotherapy and prostate clinical cancer research. I took up post as a senior lecturer in Clinical Oncology at Queen’s in January 2004 and I haven’t looked back since’.
He believes that both research and the clinical service are now at a very high level and he says Queen’s and the Belfast Trust both gain. ‘The Trust sees the benefit of me bringing research into the clinic and Queen’s sees the benefits of me being involved in clinical trials. ‘I’ve seen the work at Queen’s evolve over the last nine years. It’s at a very important juncture. In particular, Peter Gregson was very visionary when it comes to medical and biomedical research and development and I think I’ve been very lucky to have worked here during his time as Vice- Chancellor. He was extremely supportive.’
He points to a number of successes, including modernising prostate cancer radiotherapy, bringing in advances such as 3D and image-guided radiotherapy and IMRT, while on the clinical side there is the systemic management of advanced or incurable cancer ‘not just in terms of the clinical trials we’ve brought through, but in raising the profile and raising the ambition.’ He adds, ‘I’m also proud of the collaboration with Professor David Waugh and Professor Kevin Prise and their groups. We’ve brought some of their research discoveries into the clinic. We’re building the infrastructure of research and we’ve grown to such an extent that prostate cancer is one of the cancers where we have particular expertise.’
For the future? ‘There are two key areas. One is how better to use radio isotopes with chemotherapy and particularly the drug Radium-223, also known as Alpharadin. We’ve been funded to do a Belfast-based trial looking at this drug, trying to cure men with advanced prostate cancer. Nobody’s been looking at that. ‘I’m trying to use drugs like Alpharadin, along with complicated and sophisticated radiotherapy treatment of the prostate gland, to actually cure these men and let them get on with their lives. But that will also involve molecular profiling to better understand the kind of cancer we’re dealing with. I’m also interested in using high-tech external radiotherapy which is extremely precise – high dose in a very small volume. It’s a way of patients avoiding surgery and not just in prostate cancer.’
He says, ‘My research is very current. I can see benefits right in front of my eyes. Our work is grounded in real time. Patients come in and the type of research I’m talking to them about is right here, right now. I tell them – you’re starting this drug tomorrow. Let’s hope it helps you.’