Irish students to spend summer researching cancer care treatments

Part of Breakthrough Cancer Research’ Summer Scholarship Programme
Life
Frances Drummond, Breakthrough Cancer Research; Nina Zumbrunn, Jessica Walsh, Tim Cronin, and Sarah Badar. Credit: Gerard McCarthy Photogrpahy

20 June 2022

Five third-level students will spend the summer researching increased understanding and possible new treatments for cancer patients in Ireland.

Their research, across a range of cancers, is being funded by Breakthrough Cancer Research’ Summer Scholarship Programme. The charity strives to ensure that patients have access to the best treatments for cancer and never have to be told that there is ‘no hope’.

Projects include increasing early access to new medicines from pharmaceutical companies, researching what makes high-risk Multiple Myeloma (cancer of the bone marrow) cancer cells different to find new therapies that can target these differences, the effects of Vitamin D receptors in oesophageal cancer (cancer of the food pipe), and the benefits of pre and post operative exercise and nutrition programmes for people with various cancers.

 

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Among the students’ awarded scholarships is Tim Cronin from University College Cork, who will look at the role of expanded access chemotherapy programmes in a designated cancer centre at Cork University Hospital.  

Expanded access is where pharmaceutical companies provide early access to unauthorised new medicines that are not yet publicly available to cancer patients who may benefit from them. These medicines have been proven to be safe and effective through clinical trials but have not yet been brought to market.

Currently in Ireland, there is no standardised protocol for their use and therefore it relies on individual applications from oncologists and haematologists to pharmaceutical companies to obtain these treatments for their patients. 

Cronin aims to create a repository of available programmes in Ireland to allow for greater awareness and use, and to begin the first steps towards creating a nationwide expanded access programme protocol to manage and monitor their use in cancer patients in Ireland more effectively. The goal is that these programmes will be more readily available to patients who need them and as a result will improve cancer patient outcomes into the future.

Meanwhile medical student Sarah Badar of the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) is conducting her research on Multiple Myeloma (MM), a type of blood cancer that affects white blood cells which are important for our immune system. The disease affects over 350 people in Ireland every year and despite many new treatments, it is incurable as most patients will eventually relapse following treatment. Patients experience various symptoms due to the growth of these cancerous cells such as bone pain.

Badar’s research aims to personalise treatment by understanding what makes high-risk MM cancer cells different from standard-risk MM cancer cells, and to find new therapies that can target these differences.

“We will also look at how current therapies are killing the cells, to understand the biology behind the high-risk disease and what makes them different,” Badar said.

Jessica Walsh of University College Cork will research the effects of particular molecules on Vitamin D receptors in oesophageal cancer (cancer of the food pipe). In Ireland, approximately 500 people are diagnosed every year with this disease and if current projections continue, by 2045 annual cases of oesophageal cancer in men will increase by 115% and 109% in women.

Walsh said: “In oesophageal adenocarcinoma (the most common form of oesophageal cancer) we can see an increase in vitamin D receptor protein expression. In this study, we hope to identify important products created by the body that activates the vitamin D receptor in oesophageal cancer cells. The significance of such findings would contribute to a better understanding of the causes of oesophageal cancer and aid in the development of therapeutic strategies.”

Nina Zumbrunn from DCU who will conduct a trial on the benefits of an exercise and nutrition programme for people with peritoneal and ovarian cancer who are scheduled for surgery. A big focus of this research is on cognitive factors that impact a patient’s daily living, such as brain fog, memory loss, and difficulties maintaining attention.

Siobhán Lynam from RCSI will perform a follow up study on the effect of a pre-and post-operative exercise programme on oesophageal and gastric cancer patients’ physical fitness in RCSI.

Orla Dolan, CEO of Breakthrough Cancer Research, said that they are investing in the future of cancer research in Ireland. “Research into new treatments and cures of cancer is the only way that we will increase survival rates. We are delighted to partner students with research teams to develop the education of the next generation of cancer research leaders. 

“Now in it’s second year, the Summer Scholarship programme is focused on patients, with the ultimate aim being to improve cancer care and increase survival rates.  It is also vital for students to have these hands-on experiences in our cutting-edge research labs in Ireland, something they have been missing out on in recent times (due to Covid-19).”

Breakthrough is an Irish medical cancer research charity, which aims to inspire and enable financial support for exceptional research into cancer in Ireland leading to more effective treatments for patients in Ireland and Internationally and to improve cancer care and patient survival.

Over the past 20 years, Breakthrough has helped bring nine novel treatments to clinical trial and the organisation has a further five in the pipeline.

This new Summer Scholarship programme will further promote and drive more patient focused cancer research within Ireland, through education of the next generation of cancer researchers. For more see breakthroughcancerressearch.ie 

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