Meet one of the women at the forefront of cancer research in Ireland

3 Nov 2021

Image: Lorraine O’Driscoll

Prof Lorraine O’Driscoll discusses advancements in cancer treatments and why Covid-19 serves as a reminder that fundamental research is just as important as applied research.

According to the Irish Cancer Society, almost 45,000 people in Ireland get cancer each year and it is one of the biggest killers in the country.

There is constant research, ongoing innovation and technical and scientific advancements in order to tackle different forms of cancer, through improved treatments and advanced testing.

To name just a few recent developments, researchers at Queen’s University Belfast launched a software tool in August of this year that can collect and compare cancer staging data worldwide. A new University of Limerick research centre was announced in September, which aims to use digital technologies to improve the treatment of cancer in Ireland.

And just last month, cancer treatment technology start-up StimOxyGen was crowned the overall winner at the 2021 Invent awards, bagging £26,000 in funding. The start-up aims to enhance the effects of cancer treatment by overcoming the problem of hypoxia in solid tumours.

But there will always be work to be done in the area of cancer research. One person who has been embedded in this research for years is Lorraine O’Driscoll, professor of pharmacology and biomedicine at the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute at Trinity College Dublin. O’Driscoll was also recently appointed research lead for the Trinity St James’s Cancer Institute.

In an interview with Siliconrepublic.com, she said that knowing someone who died from cancer at a young age was what sparked her interest in this area.

“The mother of friends at primary school died from cancer at the age of 32. Before that, I had known of an elderly grandaunt who had died from cancer but, up until then, I had associated cancer with old age,” she said. “This tragedy embedded in me a need to try to do something about this awful problem.”

O’Driscoll’s education since then includes a bachelor’s degree in pharmacology, a master’s research degree in clinical pharmacology, a master’s degree in education and a PhD in biotechnology. She has also gained extensive experience at the Dana-Farber Harvard Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School and University of Miami.

“My research is patient-focused, spanning fundamental research to clinical trials. I’m very fortunate to lead a great team of researchers and our interests include developing better ways to diagnose cancer as early as possible.”

This research includes working to understand why and how cancer cells become resistant to anti-cancer treatment, how cancer cells suppress the immune system that should kill off cancer cells, and how cancer spreads. “By understanding these, we then work to prevent,” she said.

The role of extracellular vesicles

More than a decade ago, O’Driscoll developed an international programme on exosomes and other extracellular vesicles, collectively known as EVs.

These EVs are packages of information released from cells in the body and carry DNA, RNA and proteins that are involved in cell-cell communication. O’Driscoll, along with her research group, discovered that these EVs can transmit resistance to anti-cancer drugs.

“Basically, EVs can make formerly drug-sensitive cells now be drug-resistant. This discovery has since been validated by multiple researchers through the world. We, and other international colleagues, have also shown that these EVs are involved in cancer spreading throughout the body and in immune suppression in cancer.”

This discovery led to O’Driscoll championing a niche research area in Ireland specifically on EVs and the establishment of various European consortia studying EVs in health and disease.

“Facilitating such progress between basic science, translational research, industry and the clinic is of paramount importance to me. Last year I initiated the Extracellular Vesicles Network of Ireland (EVI) to bring any other interested EV researchers together, on the island of Ireland.”

Studies in this area could lead to huge advancements in cancer research. Some of the current research studies include investigating EVs as simple blood tests for cancer diagnosis, exploring the prevention of EVs releasing, which could block their ability to spread cancer, and investigating how non-cancer EVs could be used as natural drug delivery vehicles.

The advancement of research

As someone who has been working in the research field since the 1990s, O’Driscoll has seen massive improvements when it comes to collaboration.

“Scientists, clinicians, patients and often industry are enthusiastic to work together to find solutions. This is an excellent improvement on researchers working in silos,” she said. “The importance of the sum of the parts!”

‘I think and hope that Covid-19 has turned a spotlight on the importance of fundamental research’
– LORRAINE O’DRISCOLL

However, she said the challenges for the research sector now don’t come from a lack of novel ideas or willingness of scientists, but from securing funding.

“There’s sometimes the perception that in cancer research the turnaround time to outcome isn’t fast enough compared to some other fields of research; that someone else will fund it, that it doesn’t create jobs quickly enough,” she said.

“Of course, job creation, etc, is very important. But given that, on average, at least one person in Ireland dies from cancer each hour, we can’t afford not to invest.”

The last year and a half has caused major disruptions for every sector, but it has also brought critical attention to the health, science and research sectors. After all, it is these sectors that brought the world Covid-19 vaccines in record time as well as fascinating scientific breakthroughs in mRNA technology and wider discussions around the need for cold supply chains.

“I think and hope that Covid-19 has turned a spotlight on the importance of fundamental research. The turnaround time for vaccine development was unprecedented,” said O’Driscoll.

“However, if we couldn’t apply information from fundamental research or how cells in our body bind, traffic and respond to components of a virus, if the fundamental methods for developing mRNA vaccines were not worked out in advance, this simply could not have happened.

“Of course, applied research is important too. But if there is not equal investment in fundamental research, what discovery research findings will we have available to apply?”

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.

Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com