How cross-border cancer research starts with a conversation

9 Feb 2018

Karen McCallion, science, technology and innovation manager at InterTradeIreland. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

A collaborative clinical trials data-sharing initiative supported by InterTradeIreland could have economic and health benefits north and south of the border. Here’s how it got started.

Collaboration can come through policies, strategies, the best-laid plans and intentions. But what it takes to really get going is the spark that comes when key components come together in the perfect state of readiness.

At BioPharma Ambition in 2016, a meeting of cancer trials teams from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland ignited a partnership that could lead to wide-ranging economic and health benefits across the whole island.

While BioPharma Ambition was devised to enable just such an interaction, this was not a specifically targeted outcome of the inaugural event – which goes to show the importance of getting the right people in a room together at just the right time.

Karen McCallion, science, technology and innovation manager at InterTradeIreland, explained how a chance meeting gave them “a real champion” for their idea: Eibhlin Mulroe, CEO of Cancer Trials Ireland. “Then, when we approached the Northern Ireland network as well, they could see how much she was trying to make it work for everybody.”

The timing was also important. Attempts to establish systems like this a decade ago didn’t have the same success, but things have moved on since then, including the available data-sharing technology.

“There are different ways to approach it than there would have been a number of years ago, so it seems like the timing’s right.” said McCallion.

McCallion and her colleagues at InterTradeIreland are now preparing for BioPharma Ambition 2018. Returning to Dublin this month, the event is delivered by BioPharmaChem Ireland, the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association (IPHA) and the National Institute for BioProcessing Research and Training (NIBRT), with InterTradeIreland in the mix as a strategic partner.

“Having an event where biopharma companies from across the island, as well as from all parts of the value chain, can meet together and hear from the world’s top biopharma thought leaders, will ignite and propel opportunities for the development of an innovation ecosystem that will have mutual benefits for the economies of both Ireland and Northern Ireland,” said McCallion.

Benefits for both

Supporting sectors that can provide mutual benefits on both sides of the Irish border is top of the agenda for InterTradeIreland. In 2015, the agency published a research report that mapped the potential of all-island sectoral ecosystems, identifying biopharma as a sector best placed for cross-border development.

Four opportunities were identified in biopharma, one of them being an all-island interoperable clinical trials co-ordination network. Momentum for this idea picked up after the fateful 2016 biopharma get-together. Cancer Trials Ireland and the Northern Ireland Cancer Trials Network began to discuss the possibilities of sharing cancer research trials, and InterTradeIreland has been facilitating this strategic cross-border project since.

“We’ve now got the two organisations talking to each other and they’re beginning to identify trials which they can work on together. So still early stages but it’s positive. There’s a lot of momentum already happening,” said McCallion.

“The benefit is that it will create savings all round. There’s economic reports that show what cancer research trials save the economy. But also, by working together, it allows people across the island access to drugs and treatments that they wouldn’t be able to avail of if each jurisdiction was just working on their own. So there’s a lot of economic benefits, and there are health benefits that will result from this work as well.”

Starting conversations

The importance of data sharing and collaboration when it comes to cancer research is also part of the agenda at BioPharma Ambition, courtesy of InterTradeIreland. One of the international collaborative research programmes the agency manages is the US-Ireland R&D Partnership. Through this, they have invited Dr Richard Schilsky, chief medical officer of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, to present efficiencies and best practice when it comes to sharing cancer clinical trial research data for long-term economic and health benefits for all actors involved.

As well as using this platform to highlight the sectoral development work that InterTradeIreland is supporting, McCallion added that one of the main objectives of being at the event is visibility and “to build trust and familiarity with this concept of an all-Island biopharma sector”. It’s an opportunity to explain what work is being done as well as the roadblocks preventing progress, the resources needed to overcome them and how anyone with a solution – or even a concern – might get in touch and connect with those involved.

“That’s why the conference is a real focal point for us and it’s been a good milestone on the timeline of the work that we’ve been doing,” she said. “We’ve got action plans and we’ve got strategic objectives, but by having those events on the calendar it means that everyone can plan for it, come together, and you know that there’s going to be other people there that you might not have initially thought of that could actually add value as well.”

InterTradeIreland is quite keen at this stage to get more involvement from industry, and this is the platform to drive that. Schilsky’s session will be chaired by Prof Ian Young, Northern Ireland’s chief scientific adviser, followed by a Q&A panel of both Ireland and Northern Ireland’s top cancer research specialists.

“What we’ve found is the best thing is just to get people in a room and get them talking about it,” said McCallion.

BioPharma Ambition takes place in the Printworks, Dublin Castle on 21 and 22 February 2018.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.