NICB Cancer Week 2017 Symposium – A snapshot of our research

Cancer Week Ireland is the brain child of the Irish Cancer Society and Trinity College Dublin and aims to discuss improvements in cancer treatments, as well as tackling the physical and emotional consequences that a cancer diagnosis can bring.

Cancer research at National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology (NICB) aims to understand human cancer and how it might be better detected, treated and monitored. The NICB is fortunate to collaborate with several leading clinical researchers in Ireland including Prof. Michael Moriarty (St Luke’s Oncology group) and Prof. John Crown (St Vincent’s University Hospital) among others.

I am a final year PhD student in the NICB and I am funded by the Irish Cancer Society under the Breast Predict programme. I believe that scientists must engage with the public and provide feedback to them of the progress that is being made in our research field. During my PhD, I have presented at several public events and this year organised a public research seminar for ‘Cancer Week’ to promote the cancer research on-going in the NICB.

NICB staff and students hosted a seminar showcasing some of their ongoing cancer research. The aim of the seminars was to increase awareness of cancer in Ireland and explain to DCU staff and the General Public how the NICB is undertaking studies to further understand and treat the disease. The seminars took place at 2pm on Tuesday 26th September 2017 in the NICB seminar room. All of the speakers invited currently work within the NICB in DCU and we hope to use these events to raise awareness of the research that is being conducted in the NICB with members of the public, patients, and their families.

Neil Conlon (Funded by the Irish Cancer Society)

My talk presented work which highlighted the current treatment options for women with HER2-positive breast cancer in Ireland. I also explained how in certain cases women with HER2-positive develop resistance to their therapy and their cancer spreads.

I highlighted the work I have done, as part of my PhD. thesis, to identify novel treatment options for these patients. I described how I have been able to model treatment resistance by developing laboratory based models of resistance to current therapies. These models have been used to not only examine the resistance mechanisms that emerge, but to identify therapies which can overcome resistance that the cancer can develop to these therapies. I then presented his results which demonstrated several therapeutic strategies which could be used to improve current treatment options and prevent drug resistance from developing.


Nicola Gaynor (Funded by Cancer Clinical Research Trust)

Nicola Gaynor is a final year PhD research student and is supervised by Dr. Denis Collins (see more below), a Principal Investigator in Molecular Therapeutics for Cancer in Ireland (MTCI), funded by Cancer Clinical Research Trust (CCRT).

Nicola’s project focuses on investigating immune checkpoint inhibition in breast cancer. During her presentation, Nicola described how immune checkpoints (which are proteins expressed on the surface of cancer cells) can be inactivated by circulating immune cells. The effect of inactivating these immune checkpoints results in cancer cells being able to evade immune mediated destruction. Nicola presented data which demonstrated how her work is being targeted towards combining immune relevant therapies such as the monoclonal antibody Herceptin with novel checkpoint inhibitors. Her goal is to see if these therapies can work together to provide a better treatment for women with HER2-positive breast cancer.


Dr. Alex Eustace (funded by CCRT, Breast Cancer Now)

Dr. Alex Eustace is a research lead for Molecular Therapeutics for Cancer in Ireland (MTCI) and works closely with Prof John Crown, a consultant oncologist based in St Vincent’s University Hospital.

Alex presented results demonstrating how pre-clinical work conducted in his lab was translated into an early phase clinical trial in Irish women with HER2-positive breast cancer. Alex also mentioned how the clinical trial incorporated a large translational study which enabled clinicians to collect samples including tissue, blood and serum which can be analysed in the lab. Alex further explained that by performing pan-omic profiling, where each patient’s sample can be analysed for mutations, gene changes and proteomic changes, allows us to try to identify biomarkers which can determine which patients are likely to respond to a therapy and which patients unfortunately are likely to relapse.


Dr. Fiona O’Neill

Dr. O’Neill is a Post-Doctoral Scientist supported by St Luke’s Radiation Oncology Network and her research focuses on the importance of radiation therapy in the treatment of pancreatic cancer, focusing on the use of conventional as well hypo-fractionated regimes in the treatment of pancreatic tumours.

Hypo-fractionation radio-therapy differs from conventional radiotherapy treatment, as it delivers higher doses of radiation over a much shorter period of time. This method has been shown to increase the therapeutic effectiveness in certain cancer types. Fiona presented results demonstrating the importance of stromal cells and how these cells can protect a patient’s tumour from their radiation treatment. To further understand the role of the local tumour environment in cancer resistance, Fiona is generating radio-resistance in vitro models of pancreatic cancer, which can be used as laboratory models to investigate mechanisms of resistance to radiotherapy. What Fiona and her group are trying to understand is can scientists and clinicians determine a better course of treatment for use in patients with pancreatic cancer using conventional and hypo-fractionated therapy in combination with chemotherapy.


Dr. Sandra Roche

Dr. Roche explained to the audience that pancreatic cancer is associated with very poor survival, and that current chemotherapeutic treatment advances have failed to yield significant clinical improvement.

Here in DCU, in collaboration with SVUH, Sandra has developed Ireland’s only panel of patient derived tumour models that may help in understanding the biology of the tumour as well as being more suitable and relevant models in which to test to combinations of drugs. Sandra hopes that these models can help us in two ways: to understand why the pancreatic tumour is so aggressive (using tools in the lab to tell potentially what genes and what proteins may be linked with tumour aggressiveness) and secondly to help work out if it is possible to improve the delivery of the therapeutic agents and novel drugs to the cancer itself. Pancreatic tumours are made up of many different types of cells. In collaboration with University at Buffalo (NY, USA), Sandra hopes to break down some of the other components of the tumour so that the drugs get better access to the tumour cells. If the drug can get to the cells it has a better chance of killing the cancer cells. In this case, we would be using these models as surrogates for patients.


Dr. Denis Collins

Dr. Collins is a Principal Investigator funded by Clinical Cancer Research Trust and works for the Cancer Bio-therapeutics group as part of MTCI.

Denis’ work focuses on how, in recent times, the immune response to cancer has become an area of major interest as a treatment strategy. Denis presented results showing how novel treatment strategies using new anti-cancer drugs called Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors (ICIs) are being investigated in the clinic and explained to the audience how these ICIs prevent immune cells (that can potentially kill cancer) from being turned off by the cancer cells they are targeting. In Denis’ lab, the Cancer Bio-therapeutics group use breast cancer cells grown in the laboratory along with white blood cells and plasma from patients and healthy volunteers to investigate the white blood cell reaction to antibody therapies like Herceptin. The goal of Denis’ research is to discover the combinations of existing drugs and new immune checkpoint inhibitors that gives the best anti-cancer immune response in breast cancer patients.


The Cancer Week Research Showcase offered the public a close view of the cutting edge research that is taking place in the NICB.  Whilst all the presenters acknowledged that advanced cancer is hard to treat, they all presented novel ways in which their research groups can work to further understanding the disease, and potentially finding better ways to treat it.