Researchfest 2019 winner trying to find cancer cures in your medicine cabinet

16 May 2019

Debbie O’Reilly of DCU, winner of Researchfest 2019. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

DCU’s Debbie O’Reilly was named the winner of Researchfest 2019 for her work in trying to find possible cures for prostate cancer using common drugs.

Once again, the judges of Researchfest were left with some tough choices as eight of the successful finalists took to the second stage at Inspirefest 2019 today (16 May). Now in its fourth year, the pitch competition asks PhD researchers from Ireland and abroad to sum up their work in just three minutes and hopefully talk their way to the grand prize.

Up for grabs was a Samsung Galaxy tablet, one-to-one communication coaching, the starring role in a feature on and the chance to present on the main stage at Inspirefest.

Last year’s winner, NUI Galway’s Eoin Murphy, stole the show with his fantastic presentation on his work to use the gene-editing tool CRISPR for the treatment of Huntington’s disease.

The winning project

After gathering their thoughts after the presentations – and receiving some help from an audience poll – the judges revealed that Debbie O’Reilly of Dublin City University (DCU) was the Researchfest winner for 2019.

Her work involves the search for potential cures for prostate cancer that could be found in medicine cabinets in our own homes.

On stage, O’Reilly said that of the thousands of pharmaceutical drugs on the market, approximately 15pc target what are known as ion channels. These proteins sit in the surface of our cells, acting as messengers to inform the cell of its vital functions, such as when to grow, divide or die.

In cancer, these functions are somehow bypassed or misread, allowing the cancer to grow uncontrollably and form a tumour. O’Reilly’s research is attempting to find the links between ion channels and prostate cancer development. Currently, the only available treatment for advanced prostate cancer is effective for 18 months, but then the cell becomes resistant to treatment.

‘It’s not hidden in some deep, dark lab’

To understand why this happens, O’Reilly developed a cell model at DCU that mimics cancer progression. This led to the discovery that there is an increased expression of one ion channel in the advanced stages rather than in pre-treatment.

Importantly, a readily available drug used in the treatment of high blood pressure could also be used to treat this problem.

“There are many ion channels progressing many types of cancer and there are hundreds of drugs which target these ion channels,” O’Reilly said. “So, the next time someone asks whether the cure for cancer already exists, you can agree. It’s not hidden in some deep, dark lab, but it could be hiding in plain sight in your medicine cabinet.”

Speaking after her win to, O’Reilly said: “I can’t believe it because there were so many good speakers. Also, there were three speakers from DCU, so it was great to see it so well represented.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic