New digital cancer research centre at University of Limerick to ‘transform cancer care’

New digital cancer research centre at University of Limerick to ‘transform cancer care’

Professor Ruth Clifford, Consultant Haematologist at University Hospital Limerick with Professor Aedin Culhane, Professor of Cancer Genomics at the UL School of Medicine | PICTURES: Alan Place

A NEW research centre at University of Limerick is using personalised digital medicine to transform cancer care and improve outcomes for patients.

The Limerick Digital Cancer Research Centre (LDCRC) is a collaboration between UL and the UL Hospitals Group that has an entirely different approach to cancer treatment at its heart.

It brings together the University’s excellence in technology, software, engineering, maths and health, University Hospital Limerick’s clinical oncology expertise and patient advocates, and combines it with the industry knowledge of several multinationals, including Dell Technologies and Becton Dickenson.

The Centre, which was officially launched this Thursday, will use and develop technologies that are revolutionising health care and have vast potential to improve our ability to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.

Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris has welcomed the launch of the new research centre. "Its goals are ambitious – to get a better understanding of cancer at the cellular and molecular level and drive the development of the next generation of digital diagnostics to improve patient outcomes. We need to be ambitious. New, innovative diagnostics like the ones that will be developed here, will make it possible to deliver better outcomes and improve the quality of life for patients," he said.

UL President Professor Kerstin Mey added: “The Limerick Digital Cancer Centre will build on UL’s strength and apply state of the art approaches to cancer research with the goal of improving the lives of cancer sufferers and their relatives not only within the Limerick region, but also across the rest of Ireland and beyond."

Prof Mey says UL is well placed to respond, with world-leading expertise in cancer biology, artificial intelligence, big data analysis and digital technologies.

"We are uniquely position to deliver a truly multi-disciplinary cancer centre, which can deliver better outcomes for patients and transform cancer care,” she said.

Colette Cowan, CEO of UL Hospitals has also welcomed the launch of the new research centre: "Currently, it is estimated that one in two Irish adults will receive a cancer diagnosis in their own lifetimes and our growing and rapidly ageing population represents a huge challenge for our cancer services and for society as a whole. It is heartening for us all who live and who work in the Mid-West to see the scale of ambition set out today for the Limerick Digital Cancer Research Centre and the calibre of the people involved," she said.

University Hospital Limerick is one of the eight designated cancer centres under the HSE’s National Cancer Control Programme. The Mid-Western Cancer Centre has seen a considerable increase in activity in recent years; with attendances at the Haematology Oncology Day Ward having risen by 54% between 2010 and 2019; and a corresponding increase in outpatient attendances over the same period in the order of 45%. 

Digital cancer research spans the creation of innovative mobile medical apps, software that assists clinical decisions doctors make every day, to the application of statistics, artificial intelligence and machine learning to large scale mining of genomics and molecular data.

These technologies hope to provide earlier and more accurate cancer diagnosis and discover new drugs that cure disease and provide patients a better quality of life.

The Centre features a newly created ‘Limerick Living Lab’, an initiative established in partnership with the HSE’s Digital Transformation Unit, Dell Technologies and Akoya Biosciences.

Paul Murray, Professor of Molecular Pathology at UL, heads the Living Lab which uses high powered microscopy and state of the art artificial intelligence to digitally profile biopsies taken from a patient’s cancerous tissues.

“The technology can learn to predict how an individual will respond to a specific type of drug,” explained Professor Murray, who is Scientific Director of the Limerick Digital Cancer Research Centre.

“This will in future allow clinicians to tailor patient treatment which will improve patient outcome and spare them from potentially life threatening side effects of the toxic cancer drugs, while at the same time, saving the Health Service the unnecessary expense associated with the use of ineffective therapies,” he added.

The University of Limerick and the Centre’s commitment to find new ways to reimagine how to diagnose and treat cancer is evidenced by a recent appointment of a new Chair of Cancer Genomics that will spearhead this research in Limerick. 

Professor Aedin Culhane, a Limerick native with over 20 years’ experience in cancer bioinformatics in Ireland, the UK and the USA has joined the Centre and the University as Professor of Cancer Genomics at the UL School of Medicine. Professor Culhane is a leader in cancer bioinformatics having spent over 15 years in Harvard University and at one of the top US cancer hospitals, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. 

Her team develops methods to perform analysis of fine resolution molecular profiles of individual cells in tumours. Single cell profiling of cancer tissue biopsies provide vast amounts of data, requiring complex math and advanced statistics but these higher definition digital tumour maps give a greater opportunity to interrogate a patient’s cancer.

“Cancer is a complex disease, and these tools allow us to perform detailed dissection of the molecules in cancer cells, so we can understand how our healthy cells, immune cells and cancer cells are interacting and tailor cancer treatments. This is an incredibly exciting time in cancer research, we are making new insights every day, especially in immune oncology,” said Professor Culhane.

Professor Paul Burke, Chief Academic Officer for UL Hospitals Group and Vice-Dean Health Sciences at University of Limerick, said collaboration between academic and clinical institutions was vital to create better healthcare.

“The Centre has already received significant investment and has ambition to create a world-class critical mass of multidisciplinary research scientists, all with the same ambition - to improve patient outcomes from cancer,” Professor Burke explained.

“In the coming years, we hope that the Centre will be housed in purpose-built accommodation, with state of the art facilities on both UL and UHL sites. Combining this expertise across clinical and academic fields will be of major benefit to the people of the Mid-West region and beyond,” he added.

Prof Ruth Clifford, Consultant Haematologist at University Hospital Limerick, said: “To improve the care of our patients we need to improve cancer diagnostics and cancer treatments. There are rapidly evolving means of diagnosing patients, prognosticating for patients and treating patients. We want to be at the forefront of these developments in Limerick. The LDCRC affords us this opportunity."

Prof Clifford added: "By working closely to develop the Digital Patient, linking clinical staff and scientists working in the area of cancer research across Limerick, we aim to be a leading centre with international impact. The launch of the LDCRC also coincides with the establishment of the new Cancer Services Directorate within UL Hospitals Group, which will see a renewed emphasis on cancer research, recruiting more staff interested in research and a commitment to improved access to clinical trials.”

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