Professor of Haematology, NUI Galway and Director, Blood Cancer Network Ireland
Blood cancers are the rarest form of cancer, yet research in the area continues to yield broadly applicable findings throughout cancer research.
Even combined together, all the blood cancers – such as multiple myeloma, leukemia and lymphoma – account for less than 10% of all cancers. However, as Michael O’Dwyer, Professor of Haematology at NUI Galway explains, their impact isn’t in proportion to their rarity.
A lot of blood cancers are very aggressive
“A lot of blood cancers are extremely aggressive and have a disproportionate impact on the mortality rates and costs associated with cancer in general,” O’Dwyer said.
Tissues such as blood and bone marrow are much easier to study than solid tumours associated with other cancers, with a number of important discoveries in cancer research having come through the study of blood cancers.
Many targeted cancer treatments were pioneered in the treatment of blood cancer before being adapted to treat other cancers.
One such example involves harnessing the cancer patient’s own immune cells to directly target and kill cancer cells; a treatment that’s only become available in the last year.
‘T-Cells’, or lymphocytes (blood cells) that plays a central role in the immune system, are harvested from the patient before being genetically modified using a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) to better recognise a patient’s cancer cells and then expanded.
These supercharged CAR-T immune cells are re-infused back in to patients, with some of the results for patients in the ‘last chance saloon’ having been ‘spectacular’ according to O’Dwyer. “Many patients have gone in to complete and in some cases, lasting remission from a position of having no hope.”
Immunotheraphy as a cure is still in its infacy
First used in patients with advanced blood cancers, ‘immunotherapy’ is still in its primacy. “To use a mobile phone analogy, this is a first-generation product at the moment,” O’Dwyer said. He believes that, while well-placed to conduct other innovative clinical trials, Ireland needs significant investment in infrastructure to carry out immunotherapy treatments safely and to ensure Irish patients don’t miss out on this revolutionary therapy.
“Cellular therapy is the next ‘big wave.’ It’s important that Ireland jumps on that wave at an early stage,” he says.
“We need to put an ecosystem in place that will attract companies involved in cellular therapy to relocate here. The more PhDs and research produced within Ireland, the more inward investment we’re likely to attract, as the manpower and expertise is on hand.”