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Cancer Knows No Borders – Celebrating Tripartite Cooperation to Enhance Cancer Research

, by Prof. Mark Lawler, Ph.D., FRCPath

Professor Mark Lawler is Associate Pro Vice Chancellor, Professor of Digital Health, Chair in Translational Cancer Genomics at Queen’s University Belfast, and co-lead of the All Island Cancer Research Institute (AICRI). He has been prominent in advocating for an all-island approach to cancer research and care and played a leading role in the reinvigoration and re-signing of the Cancer Consortium agreement. In 2021, he received the Irish Association for Cancer Research (IACR) outstanding contribution to cancer research and medicine award, for his pioneering work on cancer research and care on the island of Ireland. 

On March 13th, at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, a joint symposium will take place between the NCI and Queen’s University Belfast, celebrating what can be achieved when countries work together toward high-quality collaborative cancer research. This success has been enabled by the Ireland - Northern Ireland - US National Cancer Institute Cancer Consortium, an initiative which had a somewhat unusual genesis. We are all familiar with the role that the Good Friday Agreement played in promoting peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland. But what is less known is the pivotal role that the Agreement played in supporting cancer research and its translation on the island of Ireland and the central role that the United States played in these successes.  

As we now mark the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, it is instructive to look back over the last two and half decades through the prism of cancer. On Sunday 3rd October 1999, a historical partnership was signed at Government Buildings in Stormont in Northern Ireland between the Departments of Health for Ireland and Northern Ireland and the NCI, bringing into being the Ireland - Northern Ireland - National Cancer Institute Cancer Consortium. The Cancer Consortium articulated its ambitious aim at the time: ‘to reduce cancer incidence and mortality on the island of Ireland through cross-border and transatlantic collaborations in cancer research and education.” 

So, has that vision from nearly a quarter of a century ago been realized? The answer is an emphatic Yes. Collaborative cancer research on the island of Ireland doubled, with increasing publication in highly regarded scientific and medical journals. Of note were the transatlantic partnerships that the Consortium fostered, both with the NCI and with other premier US cancer institutions. But it was not just the research that benefitted, the Consortium also had measurable health impacts. For instance, over 35,000 cancer patients were enrolled in clinical trials during the period, getting access to the latest therapies, with potentially thousands of lives saved as a result. Outcomes for breast cancer in Northern Ireland went from being the worst in the UK to the best in the UK in less than 2 decades, and there were similar improvements in esophageal cancer outcomes on both sides of the border. NCI’s former Clinical Director Doctor Bill Dahut highlighted the overall success of the Consortium when he said, “Ireland and Northern Ireland together are now firmly embedded on the global cancer research map.”  

Training and capacity building were also a big success. Over 500 healthcare professionals and scientists were trained at the NCI, many returning to help drive cancer research and its translation to better patient care on the island of Ireland. The event on the 13th of March showcases a more recent development, a doctoral training programme in precision cancer medicine between Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and the NCI which started in 2019, supported through the Health and Social Care Research and Development Office in Northern Ireland, QUB and the NCI. There are currently 7 doctoral students from QUB on this programme, jointly supervised by researchers from NCI and QUB. Several students have won prestigious scientific prizes, attesting to both the quality of the programme and the excellence of the students. 

President Joseph Biden and former Taoiseach Micheál Martin, March 17, 2021

President Joseph Biden and former Taoiseach Micheál Martin  March 17, 2021

The Consortium’s success led to the renewal of the Consortium agreement on Tuesday 16th March 2021 by the Ministers for Health for Ireland and Northern Ireland and former NCI Director Dr. Norman Sharpless. Newly elected President Joe Biden emphasised his personal commitment in his televised remarks prior to his virtual meeting with An Taoiseach (The Irish Prime Minister) on St. Patrick’s Day 2021.  Highlighting the impact of the Consortium, The Economist, on the opening day of its prestigious World Series Conference, dedicated a special session to the impressive impact of the Consortium during the last two and a half decades.

But we are not finished yet. Last year, President Biden reignited the US Cancer Moonshot℠ and reaffirmed this commitment in his recent State of the Union address with an ambitious aim to end cancer as we know it. Back in Ireland, an All Island Cancer Research Institute (AICRI) has been created, with funding through the Higher Education Authority North-South Research Programme, supported through the Shared Island Fund in the Office of An Taoiseach. AICRI is a collaborative partnership involving 10 universities working together on the island of Ireland, an unprecedented collaboration between the academic institutions North and South. As we approach St Patrick’s Day, the future is bright for cancer research and its translation to better patient care on the island of Ireland, as long as we continue to work together. Collaborating with our US partners, we can make a meaningful and impactful contribution to the global effort against cancer and contribute to President Biden’s ambitious aim to end cancer as we know it.

A Hybrid event “Cancer Knows No Borders – Celebrating Tripartite Cooperation to Enhance Cancer Research” will take place at the NIH campus on Monday, March 13th, 09.00 – 1.00 p.m. EDT and can be viewed live via Webcast and after the event on recording.

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