‘I would like to see research looking at cancer as a chronic illness’

2 Oct 2019

Debbie O’Reilly on stage at Inspirefest 2019. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Researchfest 2019 winner and DCU researcher Debbie O’Reilly is working to find possible cures for prostate cancer using common drugs.

After achieving a distinction for a BSc in applied bioscience from Dundalk Institute of Technology (DKIT), Debbie O’Reilly went on to achieve a first-class honours degree in biopharmaceutical science at DKIT. She then continued her studies at Dublin City University (DCU) where she is currently pursuing a PhD in cancer biology.

O’Reilly has been awarded Irish Research Council funding under the Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship Programme, and most recently made headlines for being named winner of Researchfest 2019 as part of the Inspirefest sci-tech festival last May.

Her work involves the search for potential cures for prostate cancer using common drugs found in medicine cabinets in our own homes. She currently has three published reviews with a research article due out early next year.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I get my interest in how things work from my Dad. He is a mechanic and has always had a curiosity-fed knowledge of the inner workings of anything mechanical. I guess I had the same curiosity when it came to the workings of the human body.

More specifically, during molecular biology classes at undergraduate stage, my interest in cellular mechanisms and how they contribute to disease was piqued. Ever since then, I have wanted to know more about these checkpoints and signals which, if interrupted, can result in diseases such as cancer.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

My supervisor in DCU, Dr Paul Buchanan, had previously published work which highlighted the increased expression of a voltage-gated calcium channel in prostate cancer patient tissue samples. This ion channel had a significantly increased expression after the patient had been treated with androgen deprivation therapy (ADT).

This formed the basis of our current research, which is investigating the role this channel is playing in the progression of prostate cancer to the treatment-resistant, castrate-resistant prostate cancer.

This project aims to determine if this channel drives these resistant cells to develop a new tumour following ADT and if blocking it with existing drugs can prevent this. Highlighting the potential for repurposing these drugs as a new treatment for prostate cancer patients, in order to improve patient survival.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Ion channels have long been identified as targetable proteins in relation to many illnesses due to their integral role in cellular homeostasis and their contribution to cellular functions. Therefore, many drugs have been developed which target various ion channels. These drugs have long been prescribed to treat patients with a variety of diseases.

Looking at ion channels in relation to cancer progression could highlight novel mechanisms which could be contributing to cancer progression, while also highlighting readily available safe and effective drugs which could be repurposed to treat these cancers. This reduces the time and money required for conventional treatment development.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Cancer biology is a complex field, with various challenges. I feel the most pressing challenge currently is understanding how cancer can come back after treatment. Many cancers can appear to be successfully treated with the patient going into remission, sometimes for years.

We need to investigate what makes some cancer cells resistant to the same treatment that eradicates the bulk of the tumour. Most cancers consist of a heterogenous cell population.

In order to successfully treat cancer, we need to look at the entire cell population and the tumour micro-environment to identify specific markers for these resistant cells so that we can target them and eradicate or control the disease.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

There are many misconceptions about cancer, with the general population believing that it is a single disease. Unfortunately, cancer is a term which covers an array of diseases.

More than 200 types of cancer exist, with many subtypes within each. So, despite popular belief, there is no one cure for all these diseases. Treatment strategies are turning towards a personalised approach to cancers and more specifically individual patients. This recognises the unique aspects of each cancer type and its variability between individuals.

I am convinced that in order to compete with misconceptions we must learn to talk about our research in an open and unambiguous manner. The current move towards public and patient involvement in research is an excellent initiative which aims to get feedback from public or patient participants on research and can help disseminate research findings throughout communities.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I would like to see research progressing towards looking at cancer as a chronic illness. We need to develop ways to manage some forms of the disease rather than focusing all our efforts on ways to eradicate them.

Many treatments for cancer result in resistance over time leading to a terminal prognosis. There is a lot of research ongoing around the plasticity of some cancer cells under treatment with the ability to acquire stem like capabilities which can evade treatment.

I think that looking at ways to manage these issues requires new thinking around cancer. We need to develop long-term or intermittent treatments which can control the cancer bulk while preventing the development of resistance or plasticity reducing the risk of cancer progression.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.