Home » Oncology » Ambitious goals inspire a recently established digital cancer research centre

Dr Ruth Clifford

Consultant Haematologist and Director of Cancer Research,
University Hospital Limerick

Aedín Culhane

Professor of Cancer Genomics in the School of Medicine and Director of the Limerick Digital Cancer Research Centre, University of Limerick

A digital research centre is partnering with patients and industry to deliver cancer research supported by cutting-edge data science and AI technology.

The University of Limerick Digital Cancer Research Centre is a growing research centre of excellence, launched in September 2021. The centre has ambitious goals and has attracted almost EUR6 million in funding in its first year.

Experts driving cancer research forward

Clinical director, Prof Ruth Clifford and academic director Prof Aedín Culhane believe creating a diverse interdisciplinary environment will be central to the centre’s success.

“Partnering with our patients, we will inspire multidisciplinary academic, clinical and industry partnerships between the University of Limerick and University Hospital Limerick to catalyse excellence in cancer research,” says Clifford.

Advanced research tools for mapping cancer cells

Clifford and Culhane gained much of their cancer research experience overseas where they saw first-hand the importance of translating academic discovery to clinical impact and are leveraging cutting-edge innovations such as spatial single-cell biology, biomaterials engineering and digital health data science and AI technology to yield new insight in cancer biology and treatments to inform clinical care. “The research tools we have now are very different to what we had five years ago,” Clifford says.

“Today, we can get highly detailed molecular data on every, single cancer cell. It means we can take the molecular portraits of that cell and direct medicines more precisely,” reveals Culhane, professor of cancer genomics.

The research tools we have now are very
different to what we had five years ago.

Dr Ruth Clifford

Creating new detailed maps of cancer

State-of-the-art technologies are measuring and quantifying tens of thousands of molecules in individual cells. Engineers are developing optical and nanosensors to precisely study real-time cell processes and develop minimally invasive, optical sensors to monitor dosage and efficacy of radio and chemotherapy — better tailoring treatment to each patient. 

“These technologies generate large volumes of data, and interpretation requires advanced computational and statistical methodology. Data scientists, software engineers, statisticians and experts in AI/machine learning are critical to the centre,” says Culhane, a leader and developer in Bioconductor — a genomics software used by over 1 million data scientists.

Global partnerships are essential

Translating the immense volume of data into effective treatments requires collaborations. Partnering with Queens University Belfast, the eHealth-Hub for Cancer will train students in best international practices of securely sharing and analysing federated clinical data to further understand cancer at scale. The Limerick Digital Cancer Research Centre is also partnering with Irish and European organisations to support Genomic Data Infrastructure.

Access to a large data pool brings valuable benefits to patients. When you have large cohorts, you can ask questions that you couldn’t ask before,” Culhane says. “Data opens up new and exciting cancer research opportunities in Ireland and can connect us to ground-breaking international research projects, bringing deeper insights and potentially driving discovery of life-changing treatments.”

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