Study shows how unique global collaboration has doubled cancer research, saving thousands of lives

A new study led by Queen’s University highlights how invaluable cross-border collaboration is to enhance research, leading to improved cancer care.

Pictured is Professor Mark Lawler from Queen's University Belfast with National Cancer Insitute (NCI) Director Dr Ned Sharpless and his senior leadership team at a meeting at the NCI to discuss the All Ireland Cancer Consortium and the potential for an All Island Cancer Research Institute

 

In 1999, as an output from the Good Friday agreement, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Ireland, Northern Ireland and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Washington USA. This led to establishment of the Ireland–Northern Ireland–NCI Cancer Consortium (the All Ireland Cancer Consortium (AICC)), which aimed to enhance cancer research and cancer care on the island of Ireland.

AICC has been supported over the last 20 years by the Health and Social Care Research & Development Division, Public Health Agency, Northern Ireland, the Health Research Board of Ireland and the Irish Cancer Society.

An analysis of the AICC’s impact, published in the European Journal of Cancer, shows that collaborative cancer research on the island of Ireland has doubled as a result of the consortium, with vastly increased access to clinical trials, delivering significant life-saving care for many cancers including breast, oesophageal and myeloma cancers.

Speaking from Washington, Professor Mark Lawler, Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Professor of Digital Health and Chair in Translational Cancer Genomics in the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research at Queen’s University Belfast and lead author of the study, said: “AICC has been truly transformational. Collaborative cancer research has doubled, the quality of the research and its impact have increased significantly when compared to other European countries and cancer researchers from the island of Ireland are now publishing high quality scientific papers with the very best researchers from the most prestigious institutions in the USA. Critically, the research has delivered significant impact for cancer patients on the island of Ireland.

“Before 1999, access to cancer clinical trials was extremely limited, but a key output of AICC was establishment of a cancer clinical trials infrastructure, so that patients from Ireland and Northern Ireland could be treated with the latest medicines and most novel therapeutic approaches. The activities and influence of the AICC have undoubtedly helped save thousands of lives on the island of Ireland.”

Dr Bill Dahut, Clinical Director, Centre for Cancer Research at the NCI, USA, said: “The National Cancer Institute welcomes the results of this informative study.  It highlights how collaborative partnerships can deliver significant added-value to cancer research endeavors. We have been delighted to be a part of this 20 year journey that has enhanced cancer research and its translation into real benefits for cancer patients on the island of Ireland.”  

Over 35,000 patients with cancer have been involved in clinical trials in Ireland in the last 20 years and the benefits have been significant. In diseases such as breast cancer, oesophageal cancer and myeloma, patients have been recruited to clinical trials from both Ireland and Northern Ireland, something that would not have happened without AICC. Groundbreaking trials such as TailorX, in which 690 women from Ireland participated, demonstrated that chemotherapy can be avoided by 70 per cent of women with the most common type of early stage breast cancer, thus preserving their quality of life.   

Eibhlin Mulroe, CEO of Cancer Trials Ireland, said: “The study just published, highlights the need for patients from the island of Ireland to have access to the best quality clinical trials. Cancer Trials Ireland has been working with the Northern Ireland Cancer Trials Network (NICTN), the NCI and InterTradeIreland since 2016 to reignite cross-border partnerships in clinical trials, giving increased hope to cancer patients across the island of Ireland.”

Doctor Melanie Morris, Operational Director of NICTN stated: “This publication highlights that through partnership, not only do we improve access to clinical trials on an all-island basis, but we also provide the expertise and knowledge base to ensure new treatments and technologies are adopted into standard care.  Following the inception of AICC, it has been very rewarding to see that a series of pivotal trials, involving local patients, have resulted in the approval and delivery of life-changing cancer treatments.”

Speaking on behalf of InterTradeIreland, the cross-border body that promotes and supports trade and business development, Karen McCallion, a co-author on the paper, said: “In addition to the scientific and clinical benefit that AICC has delivered, it also provides the opportunity to drive an all-island innovation agenda that will help boost Research and Development and strengthen economies across the island of Ireland.”

Addressing what the next 20 years will hold, particularly in the context of Brexit, Professor Mark Lawler continued: “Given the UK’s exit from the EU, the results of this study highlight that approaches that ensure sustained cooperative cancer research activity between Ireland and Northern Ireland would yield significant benefits for researchers, health systems, the economy and most importantly citizens on the island of Ireland and must be proactively pursued.  Cancer knows no borders, why should we? We need to compete, not against each other, but against our common enemy… cancer.”

The authors call for establishment of an All Island Cancer Institute, founded on excellent science and bringing together the best minds to translate new knowledge into better prevention, earlier diagnosis, more innovative treatments and enhanced rehabilitation and return to normal living, thus delivering unrivalled benefit for citizens and society on the island of Ireland.

Professor Ian Greer, President and Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, said: “Imagine bringing together the combined strengths of researchers on this island to tackle a challenge such as cancer, linking in with our colleagues at the world renowned National Cancer Institute in Washington.   Together, we could really make a difference in a disease that affects one in every two citizens on this island. We could act as a beacon to attract the best researchers in the world to address one of human health’s great challenges.”

This study was led by Queen’s University Belfast in collaboration with Kings College London, the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry, InterTradeIreland and Cancer Trials Ireland.

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