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Global collaboration in 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.

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.   

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.

Cancer Care in the Era of COVID-19

An opinion piece, just published in the European Journal of Cancer involving researchers at Queens, the University of Split, Croatia and King’s College London has highlighted that the response to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is significantly affecting the health and wellbeing of patients with cancer.

Backing up this assertion, Queen’s researchers, in collaboration with researchers from University College London and fellow colleagues in DATA-CAN, the UK’s Health Data Research Hub for Cancer, have just completed a major study which they have posted online, showing how diagnostic referrals and treatment appointments have dropped significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, which they predict may lead to 18,000 excess deaths in patients with cancer. 

Cancer is a common disease, with over 3.7 million new diagnoses in Europe each year and over 1.9 million deaths. The research highlighted how the repurposing of the health systems and implantation of social distancing measures has had a negative effect on patients with cancer. With urgent referrals dropping, surgical procedures being postponed and cancer specialists being redirected to COVID-19 specific care, there is a risk of a future cancer epidemic.

Cancer and COVID-19 Panel Discussion

In this panel discussion, Mr Maurice Macartney, Community Impact Officer, is joined by two leading cancer specialists from Queen’s, Professor Mark Lawler and Professor Joe O’Sullivan, and pioneering patient’s advocacy campaigner Mrs Margaret Grayson MBE to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on cancer care.

These thought leaders discuss their views based on their expert knowledge and perspective within research, the clinical setting and being a patient in the health system during this current pandemic. In their online discussion, the panel will highlight key issues related to Cancer and COVID-19 including;

  • The importance of access to real data and its application to cancer policy in order to develop solutions to reduce the predicted excess mortalities
  • Consequences of late presentation of cancers
  • Patient fear when considering accessing services and regaining the confidence of the public in a health setting
  • Providing appropriate resources for cancer services to be delivered at pre covid-19 levels

Professor Mark Lawler of the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research is Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Digital Health in Queen’s. He is a leading figure in European cancer research, having led the development of the European Cancer Patients’ Bill of Rights, and having been a driver of the All-Ireland Cancer Consortium, founded in the wake of the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement. 

The Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research

Researchers at The Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research at Queen's have expertise in developing new therapeutic approaches and optimising existing therapies to produce better outcomes for cancer patients.  These same approaches can be applied to develop new rapid approaches to infection pandemics.  Researchers at The Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research will work in collaboration with researchers across other areas to test whether current drugs can be repurposed to tackle COVID-19.

Addressing Global Challenges

Excellence in research and innovation, and making a positive global impact, are central to what we do at Queen’s University Belfast. Find out more.

Photo: Professor Mark Lawler Professor Mark Lawler
Professor Lawler is an internationally renowned scientist with over 30 years experience in cancer research, who is passionate about translating his research for the benefit of patients and society.