Cork hospital hopes to extend cancer-gene-testing trial

3 Jul 2023

From left: Prof Mark Corrigan and Fiona O'Keefe. Image: Brian Lougheed

The trial that involves sending blood samples to a European lab can identify cancer profiles significantly faster than current systems.

A lifesaving trial in a Cork hospital is reducing wait times for cancer patients awaiting genetic testing from two years to just four weeks.

Doctors at Cork University Hospital (CUH) are now hoping this “transformative” pilot project is made permanent as national health services continue to be swamped.

The six-month project is a collaboration between CUH, the National Cancer Control Programme and the South/Southwest Hospital Group.

The project sees blood samples from newly diagnosed cancer patients or from those on treatment waiting lists being sent to a lab in mainland Europe. The lab then ‘mainstreams’ a patient’s cancer by giving specialists “an extra piece of the jigsaw” to decode the most effective surgery, treatment or medication.

It has already fast-tracked testing for over 80 patients and with confirmation of extra funding, will continue for the rest of this year, testing a further 30 cancer patients a month.

“We are very excited about this. Reducing the time it takes to identify what form of cancer we are dealing with through swamped national services, taking two years, to just four weeks in Cork, is massive,” said CUH surgical oncologist Prof Mark Corrigan.

“If we can determine what specific genes are contributing to a patient’s cancer, we can use that information to modify their treatment. Extra funding is extending the pilot until the end of this year, but we want to expand and develop it well beyond that.”

‘Containing care in one place’

The project also has the potential to prevent cancer and deaths by identifying hereditary gene mutations that can be passed from patients to their children and grandchildren.

One of the individuals pushing for more national and public support for the CUH project is Fiona O’Keefe, a 49-year-old Cork woman who is recovering from breast cancer. She was diagnosed three years ago, while both her sister and mother suffered from the disease. Her mother died of the disease last year.

O’Keefe did not benefit from the new testing programme at CUH. Instead, she had to go to Dublin for genetic testing to find the gene causing the cancer in her family, which removed her from experts in Cork.

“In that time, you lose the connection with the people that you’re used to dealing with,” she said. “This new clinic is so welcome as you are containing all of your care in one place so it’s less stressful. My hope is that it is here to stay to benefit the next generation.”

According to figures from the Irish Cancer Society, almost 44,000 people in Ireland get cancer each year.

Corrigan, who is also the project lead, said that doctors can now see patients, counsel them, order the test and have it back “in a matter of weeks”.

“Consider, for example, a family that lost their mother to cancer a few years ago. Mainstreaming allows us to identify and dramatically reduce the chances of her grandchildren also losing their mother to the same outcome.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic