Five Irish students awarded grants to find breakthrough cancer treatments

20 Jun 2022

Nina Zumbrunn, Jessica Walsh, Tim Cronin and Sarah Badar, who are taking part in the Breakthrough Cancer Research Summer Scholarship Programme. Image: Gerard McCarthy Photography

Projects at UCC, DCU and RCSI will range from increasing early access to new medicines to research into high-risk bone marrow cancer.

Five third-level students have been awarded funding of €2,500 by Breakthrough Cancer Research to investigate possible new treatments for cancer patients in Ireland.

Their projects cover topics including increasing early access to new medicines, research into high-risk bone marrow cancer, the effects of vitamin D receptors in oesophageal cancer, and the benefits of exercise and nutrition programmes for people with various cancers.

The research is being funded as part of Breakthrough Cancer Research’s Summer Scholarship Programme. The charity said it has helped bring nine novel treatments to clinical trial over the past 20 years, with a further five in the pipeline.

It is hoped that the programme will promote more patient-focused cancer research within Ireland and help educate the next generation of researchers.

“Research into new treatments and cures of cancer is the only way that we will increase survival rates,” Breakthrough CEO Orla Dolan said. “We are delighted to partner students with research teams to develop the education of the next generation of cancer research leaders.

“Now in its second year, the Summer Scholarship Programme is focused on patients, with the ultimate aim being to improve cancer care and increase survival rates.”

The projects are taking place in three Irish universities over a period of six to 10 weeks.

University College Cork

Tim Cronin will look at the role of expanded access to chemotherapy programmes in a designated cancer centre at Cork University Hospital.

Expanded access is where pharmaceutical companies provide early access to unauthorised new medicines, which have been proven safe in clinical trials but are not yet in the market. There is no standardised protocol for their use in Ireland, so individual applications are required to obtain these treatments.

Cronin aims to create a repository of available programmes in Ireland to allow for greater awareness and to begin the first steps towards creating a nationwide expanded access protocol.

Meanwhile, Jessica Walsh of University College Cork will research the effects of particular molecules on vitamin D receptors in oesophageal cancer. Around 500 people are diagnosed every year with this disease in Ireland and if current projections continue, the annual case numbers will increase by more than 100pc for both men and women.

“In this study, we hope to identify important products created by the body that activates the vitamin D receptor in oesophageal cancer cells,” Walsh said. “The significance of such findings would contribute to a better understanding of the causes of oesophageal cancer and aid in the development of therapeutic strategies.”

RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences

Sarah Badar’s research will focus on multiple myeloma (MM), a type of bone marrow cancer that affects white blood cells. Despite new treatments, most patients will eventually relapse following treatment and experience various symptoms due to the growth of cancerous cells, such as bone pain.

Badar aims to personalise treatment by understanding what makes high-risk MM cancer cells different from standard-risk MM cancer cells, to help find new therapies that can target these differences.

“We will also look at how current therapies are killing the cells, to understand the biology behind the high-risk disease and what makes them different,” Badar said.

Meanwhile, Siobhán Lynam will perform a follow-up study on the effect of a pre- and post-operative exercise programme on the physical fitness of oesophageal and gastric cancer patients.

Dublin City University

Nina Zumbrunn from Dublin City University will conduct a trial on the benefits of an exercise and nutrition programme for people with peritoneal and ovarian cancer who are scheduled for surgery.

One key focus area will be on cognitive factors that impact a patient’s daily living such as brain fog, memory loss and difficulties maintaining attention.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic