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Queen’s doctor receives prestigious award for research on head and neck cancer

Dr Kirsty Taylor, a Clinical Fellow from the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research at Queen’s, has received the prestigious 2022 Conquer Cancer Merit Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

The award recognises her work on developing promising biomarkers to precisely determine those patients who respond best to immunotherapy for head and neck cancer.

Head and neck cancer is a significant problem in the UK with over 4,000 deaths annually. The programme of research investigated the ability of the patient’s own immune system to be primed to attack the patient’s cancer.

Professor Mark Lawler, Professor of Digital Health and Chair in Translational Cancer Medicine and the architect of the joint training programme, said: “The situation for head and neck cancer has worsened in the UK due to the indirect impact of the Covid pandemic, so it is crucial that we deliver the best possible care that we can. Dr Taylor’s work highlights how a precision medicine approach can potentially help deliver significant benefit and improve survival for patients with head and neck cancer.”

Dr Taylor is the inaugural fellow on the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research – Princess Margaret Cancer Centre Toronto Clinical Fellowship Training Programme in Precision Cancer Medicine, an innovative training programme where Dr Taylor spent two years in Toronto being exposed to one of the best cancer clinical trials environments in the world, returning to Belfast for her final year to use those skills to drive research for the benefit of patients in Northern Ireland.

Speaking on her award, Dr Taylor said: “The opportunity to work in a leading cancer centre, with a large portfolio of innovative clinical trials, offered me unparalleled exposure to an innovative and supportive research environment and subsequently an exponential increase in my research skills and knowledge. This work brings excitement of the possibility of minimally invasive, real-time, predictive biomarkers of response to immunotherapy, with the potential to enhance patient survival.”

Professor Lillian Siu, Clinical lead of the Tumour Immunotherapy Programme at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and Professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto, and Canadian lead on the programme, said: “Dr Taylor’s work highlights the benefits of a transatlantic collaboration in addressing the global cancer challenge. The results from this research and the robust collaboration that we have established between our two institutions through this training programme will inform delivery of the best possible care for our patients, in Canada, in Northern Ireland and across the UK.”

The initiative received significant funding from the Health and Social Care (HSC) Research and Development Division, Public Health Agency, Northern Ireland. Dr Janice Bailie, Assistant Director of the HSC Research and Development Division in Northern Ireland, said: “We are delighted that this initiative which we have supported has been recognised through an international award. The joint fellowship programme is a significant capacity builder for Northern Ireland. Leaders like Dr Taylor represent the future, using innovative research to develop the new diagnostics and treatments that our patients urgently need.”

Dr Taylor will present the results of her research at the Annual Conference of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the largest cancer conference in the world in Chicago in June 2022.