Dr Róisín Dwyer wants to create specific, personalised medicine for cancer patients to increase its impact and reduce toxic side effects.
According to figures from the Irish Cancer Society, almost 43,500 people in Ireland get cancer each year.
The types and the ways in which each one affects a patient can differ wildly, meaning treatment often has to be broad and generalised, which can lead to adverse and long-term side effects.
That’s where personalised medicine can come in. Dr Róisín Dwyer is one of the many researchers at Precision Oncology Ireland working on a variety of targeted approaches to diagnose and more accurately treat cancer patients based on the exact type of disease they have and their own personal biology.
Dwyer is an associate professor in translational science and a principal investigator in the discipline of surgery at University of Galway.
“I was always fascinated by how things work and have never lost that interest. I still find it remarkable when I look down a microscope at cancer cells – the way they reach and stretch towards or away from each other – how they are so dependent on their environment,” she told SiliconRepublic.com.
“I think my real interest in cell biology started in secondary school. I really enjoyed the hands-on laboratory element. It was during my degree that I became particularly interested in cancer and ultimately chose to continue on to my PhD in breast cancer biology.”
Cancer in its many guises is often treated with chemotherapy, most of which is not targeted specifically at cancerous cells but at any rapidly growing cells.
While personalised medicine is not a new phenomenon, it still has an incredibly long way to go, especially when the volume of different factors that can change how certain diseases react to a person’s biology can be near infinite.
Dwyer’s own focus is on breast cancer and even that is more of an umbrella term for the multiple types of breast cancer that exists.
‘We are focused on developing a therapy for patients with advanced disease who currently have limited treatment options’
– RÓISÍN DWYER
“Patients with the disease can have a totally different experience and outcome. This may be due to whether the disease is detected at an early stage or later when it may have spread to other parts of the body, or due to the different subtype of breast cancer.”
She added that when it comes to treatment, there needs to be a focus on the patient’s quality of life both during and after treatment, rather than just on the cancer itself.
“There can be an expectation for people to return to their previous life once treatment has ended, but the fact is that many treatments have long-term effects. Breast cancer patients may be dealing with lymphedema, fatigue, early menopause, muscle loss, osteoporosis etc. This can make it very difficult to return to work, caring responsibilities or enjoyable activities that may have been routine for the person before treatment,” she said.
“We need targeted treatments that will travel through the blood stream specifically to the site of disease and bypass healthy tissue. This will result in increased potency/impact of the drug and less toxic side effects.”
Personalised medicine can be particularly important for patients with disease that has spread to different sites, according to Dwyer.
“Understanding the pathways involved in cancer progression at a cellular level supports development of drugs that will specifically target and shut them down,” she said.
“There are some targeted therapies already available and others showing great promise in clinical trial. We are focused on developing a therapy for patients with advanced disease who currently have limited treatment options.”
Science communication and networking
Last year, Dwyer featured in a Science on Screen documentary titled The People There to Catch Us, which told the story of two cancer survivors, Tom Hope and Rachel O’Mahony who work alongside researchers at Precision Oncology Ireland.
The film was produced in collaboration with Precision Oncology Ireland and the Patient Voice in Cancer Research, and funded by CÚRAM, the All-Island Cancer Research Institute, the UCD-Wellcome Institutional Strategic Support Fund and the National Breast Cancer Research Institute.
‘The focus should not be solely on the disease, but on the whole person’
– RÓISÍN DWYER
Dywer told SiliconRepublic.com that she has seen huge improvements in science communication in recent years.
“There are great professional communicators who can bring specialised research to a wider audience, and patient and public involvement in research has also played a huge role in this,” she said.
“Involving patients in research is crucial – we should be driven by what is important to patients and the realities of their lived experience. I thought this was reflected very well in the documentary and give huge credit to advocates like Rachel O’Mahony who are willing to share their insights. The focus should not be solely on the disease, but on the whole person, and this shift in focus is impacting patient care.”
Aside from communicating to the wider public, Dwyer said she wished she knew the importance of creating a network of trusted colleagues and friends who understood the challenges and joys of research when she was starting out.
“The nature of research means that it can be fraught with failure and is very competitive, but it is also hugely rewarding. Having a trusted network helps you stay on an even keel during challenging times and not lose sight of the ultimate goal: to improve outcomes for cancer patients.”
She also said that despite what people may think, research is a team sport. “While there may be awareness of specific high-profile scientists, everyone works as part of a team,” she said.
“Progress is dependent on people with different expertise coming together, patients to shape the research priorities, scientists from different fields for the discovery phase, engineers to develop devices for drug delivery, pharmaceutical companies to produce the drug, clinicians to deliver the therapy…the list goes on.
“That is why consortia like Precision Oncology Ireland, which brings together scientists and clinicians in multiple universities, cancer charities and industry partners, are so important to progress.”
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