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Cancer is not a single disease - at a molecular level, a person’s cancer may well be as individual as they are. This may sound overwhelming, but for some patients it is very good news, because it can open up new opportunities for personalised and targeted treatments. 

That means that with the right technology and understanding, science can identify the exact molecular signature of a cancer and match it with the course of treatment that gives the person the best chance of a good outcome. 

This the goal of the Precision Oncology Ireland, a consortium that brings together experts from across academia, industry, cancer charities and patient organisations. They want to get the right treatment to the right person at the right time, to maximise benefits for the patient and minimise harm and side-effects. This more personalised approach is already helping some patients around the world to live longer and healthier lives, and now the challenge is to enable it to be used more widely. 

“Our aim is to bring the advanced technologies that help us with experiments at the lab bench all the way through to clinical trials with patients,” explains Professor Walter Kolch, Director of Precision Oncology Ireland and Systems Biology Ireland in University College Dublin. “Our research is enabling the search for new drugs, we are exploring how to make more informative cancer diagnoses and we are also looking at how the ‘micro-environment’ around the tumour affects how the cancer develops and responds to treatment.”

Graphic of person with target over one of their lungs

Professor Kolch describes the need for a ‘conveyor belt’ of discovery and innovation, which is why since 2019 Precision Oncology Ireland has brought together expertise from universities (University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, University College Cork and University of Galway), companies (AstraZeneca, Celgene Institute for Translational Research Europe, Cell Stress Discoveries, Genuity Science, Helsinn Group, pHion Therapeutics and OncoMark) and patient charities (Breast Cancer Ireland, Breakthrough Cancer Research, Irish Cancer Society, National Breast Cancer Institute, National Children’s Research Centre and The Oesophageal Cancer Research Fund). 

Part-funded by Science Foundation Ireland under the Strategic Partnership Programme, the combined funding commitment for Precision Oncology Ireland from industry, charity and SFI is €11.9 million across five years. 

Some of the work in Precision Oncology Ireland explores the world of cancer cells, to better understand how cancer arises and progresses, and what this means for treatment. One project, on a blood cancer called acute myeloid leukaemia, is looking at how cancer cells can ‘hide’ from chemotherapy in the bone marrow and develop resistance to treatment. Another is working out how immune molecules called antibodies stimulate the patient’s immune system, and how we best can use them as medicines to attack tumour cells.

As well as identifying new and better cancer treatments, Precision Oncology Ireland also wants to help patients by reducing the side-effects that often come with cancer treatments, explains Professor Kolch. “By using advanced technologies to analyse the molecular signatures of cancers from blood or tumour samples, we are developing ways to identify when patients are likely to benefit from treatments that are not as toxic as conventional chemotherapy,” he says. “This will make their treatment more comfortable at the time, and in the longer term they can avoid the potential secondary long-term effects of the more toxic treatments. This is especially important for children undergoing treatment for cancer.”

Precision Oncology Ireland is also developing processes for researchers, clinicians and patients to work together and share expertise and technology, explains Professor Kolch, who received the SFI Mentorship Award for 2022.

“This is an important and emerging area in cancer and other diseases, and we are driving fundamental discoveries and building a blueprint of how to translate those into benefits for patients.”