High-tech disease profiling is the next stage in the fight against cancer

30 Oct 2017

Prostate cancer cells. Image: royaltystockphoto.com/Shutterstock

Emily McDaid met with Prof Richard Kennedy to discuss the Stratified Medicine Group, a partnership between Queen’s University Belfast and Almac Diagnostics.

Prof Richard Kennedy is professor of medical oncology at Queen’s University Belfast, and the medical director and global vice-president of biomarker development at Almac Diagnostics, a research group launched in 2011, having received funding from Invest NI.

He’s building an important bridge between academia and the commercial world.

“We currently have around 16 people working in the Stratified Medicine Group on some main themes, including the development of new technologies to look at molecular pathways in cancer,” said Kennedy.

“Firstly, we’re looking at biomarkers to predict better which drugs will work and which won’t. Secondly, we research ways to harness the body’s immune system to attack cancer. Thirdly, we develop tests and therapies that attack the blood vessels that feed tumours.”


Prof Richard Kennedy, global vice-president of biomarker development and medical director, Almac Diagnostics. Image: TechWatch

What drugs will work for whom?

Genes are represented in DNA from which you make messenger RNA (mRNA). It’s all under the umbrella of molecular biology – how the nucleus controls the cell. One example is an mRNA-based test we have developed that predicts the outcome for patients with early prostate cancer. That test is now in the commercialisation phase at Almac.

We also have an mRNA-based EMT assay that predicts the ability of cancer to spread. This works across different types of cancer, involving MEK inhibitors.

When will it be launched?

It will be two years before the prostate cancer assay can be launched on the market, as we need to secure the mechanisms for paying for the test. The EMT assay will require validation in a clinical trial of MEK inhibitors along with a pharmaceutical partner, which will take one to two years.

Any other results from the group lately?

We developed a test predicting patients that will benefit from drugs that attack the blood vessels that feed cancer. Almac is working on a new therapy with an associated biomarker for patient selection. This will be taken into clinical trials at Belfast City Hospital and several other UK sites.

What’s the future of personalised medicine?

Firstly, let’s look at what’s driving this. Treatments are becoming more expensive and NHS costs are driving up. We also have relatively fewer working people supporting the healthcare of a growing elderly population. If we can give a genetic profile of cancer, then patients will be grouped into A, B, C or D types, and treated specifically for that disease profile, thereby improving therapies while reducing costs and unnecessary side effects.

What about costs?

Although the costs of modern technologies – such as DNA and RNA sequencing approaches – have often been prohibitive, these are coming down all the time. Technology is also speeding up, allowing faster turnaround times from sample analysis to patient result.

How are diagnostics improving?

To date, personalised medicine has relied on tissue biopsies, which involve a surgical procedure. Going forward, we’re trying to use liquid biopsies because they are less invasive. The idea is to develop blood, urine or saliva-based biomarkers. I believe, in two to three years, this will be mainstream.

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland