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Memorandum of Understanding signed in historic day for cancer patients on island of Ireland

Today (Tuesday 16 March) leading health officials have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to reinvigorate and re-prioritise the Ireland–Northern Ireland–NCI Cancer Consortium (The All-Ireland Cancer Consortium (AICC)).

The Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the Minister of Health for Northern Ireland, Robin Swann MLA, the Minister of Health for Ireland, Stephen Donnelly TD and Director of the US National Cancer Institute, Dr Norman Sharpless MD.

In a virtual event held simultaneously in Belfast, Dublin and Washington, the health leaders reaffirmed a commitment to a tripartite arrangement that was first established in 1999 to enhance cancer research, promote education and training and underpin improved cancer care on the island of Ireland. The Taoiseach of Ireland Micheal Martin TD, First Minister Arlene Foster MLA and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’ Neill MLA of Northern Ireland also spoke at the historic event.

The Consortium was the brainchild of the late Professor Patrick Johnston, former Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, which he conceived and developed on his return from the NCI in the late 1990s.

Continuing Queen’s leadership in cancer research on the island of Ireland, Professor Mark Lawler, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Professor of Digital Health and Chair in Translational Cancer Genomics at Queen’s, has been instrumental in reinvigorating the Consortium, working closely with colleagues from the US National Cancer Institute, Cancer Trials Ireland, InterTradeIreland and the Departments of Health in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Recent research led by Professor Lawler, published in the European Journal of Cancer highlighted the significant positive impact of the AICC across the island of Ireland for cancer research, cancer care and cancer patients. Collaborative cancer research has doubled between researchers in Ireland and Northern Ireland and there have been significantly more joint research projects with US scientists. In diseases such as breast cancer, oesophageal cancer and myeloma, patients have been recruited to clinical trials from both Ireland and Northern Ireland. Crucially, in the 20-year period from 2000 – 2020, over 35,000 patients on the island gained access to clinical trials, saving thousands of lives.

Speaking at today’s historic event, Professor Lawler, said: “This is a pivotal moment for our island. We have worked together North, South, East and West for the last four years to realise this ambition. And it comes at a critical time for us all.

“Recent research we performed on an all-island basis shows the devastating impact of COVID and national lockdowns on cancer services and cancer patients. Unless we act now, we risk the current COVID pandemic precipitating a future cancer pandemic and destroying the significant progress we have made in the last 20 years. What we are proposing is All-Island initiative akin to the U.S. Cancer Moonshot, bringing together the best minds on this island to address one of human health’s greatest challenges.”

Dr Bill Dahut MD, Clinical Director at the NCI in Bethesda Maryland, a key driver of the initiative, spoke at today’s event: “I am so delighted that this day has come. It provides unparalleled opportunities to work closely together to develop better treatments that will make a real difference for cancer patients. The research that Professor Lawler and his team has performed demonstrates that Ireland and Northern Ireland together are now firmly embedded within the global cancer research map. We look forward to bringing our resources and expertise together in addressing cancer.” 

NCI Director Doctor Norman Sharpless also spoke at today’s event.

Eibhlin Mulroe, CEO of Cancer Trials Ireland who also spoke at the event and has worked closely with Professor Lawler and Dr Dahut on reaffirming the MOU, said: “We know that cancer clinical trials help us to ensure that cancer patients get access to the latest innovative treatments. This partnership between Ireland, Northern Ireland and the US gives us the opportunity to get the best possible care for our patients. A patient in Cork should have the same opportunity to be involved in a clinical trial as a patient in Dublin, Derry, Belfast, or indeed Washington. Cancer knows no borders, neither should we.”

Ms Margaret Grayson, a breast cancer survivor, chair of the Northern Ireland Cancer Research Consumer Forum and speaker at the event, said: “This is a momentous day for cancer patients across the island of Ireland. It provides an opportunity for better research, more effective use of data and more effective treatments, all focussed on the needs of the cancer patient.”

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