The Limerick Digital Cancer Research Centre will improve cancer care and patient outcomes through pioneering interdisciplinary translational research, harnessing a critical mass of world-leading scientists and clinicians to upgrade our understanding of cancer, its classification and treatment. Simultaneously, we will innovate in the analysis and use of multidimensional patient data, to create new multiscale patient-specific digital models; the long-term aim being to create a 'digital twin', a personalised in-silico model, capable of more accurate diagnosis, outcome prediction and personalised therapeutic decision-making.
The Digital Oncologist will allow us to subsequently use these data to foster new understanding of disease mechanisms, simulate the effect of therapies and provide recommendations to tailor interventions to individual patients to achieve optimal results with minimal side-effects.
Objective 1: Drive research and clinical developments in digital precision medicine, including the establishment of a centre of excellence for digital pathology. The digital patient will work in tandem with the digital oncologist, an AI driven component that will provide oncologists with treatment recommendations based on ‘what-if?’ type simulations performed on the digital patient model.
Objective 2: Build a critical mass in defined areas of cancer biology to transform our understanding of cancer, particularly in areas where this new knowledge is likely to be maximally impactful for patients.
Objective 3: Create an integrated physical space for partnership-working by co-locating fundamental and clinical scientists in state-of-the art laboratory and clinical research space, providing them with the infrastructure and cutting-edge technologies to drive new knowledge in the field of cancer biology.
Objective 4: Build an integrated regional infrastructure in which biomedical sciences is a focal point, maximising collaborative opportunities with other scientific and clinical colleagues and with biopharma.
Objective 5: Engage with patient and public groups to help shape the research directions of the Limerick DCRC and ensure outputs are accessible and acceptable, taking into account the diversity of the population, and most importantly patient’s needs.
Strategy for delivering the Objectives:
To meet these objectives, we will bring together the core functions necessary to create a multidisciplinary footprint on the UL campus capable of delivering internationally competitive research, supported by a bespoke suite of educational programmes. A critical component of our strategy is to embed opportunities for the training/upskilling of clinicians (developing clinician-scientists) at all levels, ensuring integration and promoting the translation of fundamental discovery science into the clinic.
Objective 1: Drive research and clinical developments in digital precision medicine: The big data generated in our fundamental science programmes will be combined with patient demographic, phenotypic and clinical outcome data to create a resource that will help us to begin to understand the complexity of an individual and each patient’s tumour and to use this information to improve diagnostics, including outcome prediction and therapeutic decision-making. The longer-term objective is to create a 'digital twin', a personalised in-silico model, that integrates the internet of things, artificial intelligence, machine learning and software analytics with spatial network graphs to create a ‘living’ digital simulation model of the patient. The digital twin can update itself in real-time as the patient, situation, knowledge and opportunities change.
A key element of this strategy will be the creation of DeCIPHER (Deconvoluting Complex Images of Pathology for Health, Education and Research) a new Centre of Digital Pathology. DeCIPHER will bring together the data analytics and software engineering expertise to enable integration of rich pathological, therapeutic response, phenotypic and multi-omics data at single cell resolution from tissue samples in 3-D. This will allow us to generate faithful digital copies of a patient’s cancer tissue. These models will be used for example, to reveal spatial relationships within the tumour that could be targeted with tailor-made drugs. Moreover, the digital twin concept will allow us to build bespoke 3-D models of the tissue using ‘bioprinting’, in other words, 3-D printing with cells, enabling patient-specific drug screens. Importantly, we can apply these digital concepts also to the tissue archive of pathology departments throughout the world, which represent an invaluable, yet largely untapped, research resource for studying the molecular basis of disease, making it possible to perform large retrospective studies, correlating spatial features with therapeutic response and clinical outcome.
Objective 2: Build a critical mass in defined areas of cancer biology: We will seek investment to recruit and retain world-class fundamental science and clinical academics in cancer and related fields focussing on, but not limited to, the cross cutting fundamental and translational science and clinical themes described here. We envisage generous support packages for these new appointments as well as providing support for existing excellent researchers, which will include associated Senior Lecturer and Lecturer appointments, Post-Doctoral Posts and PhD Studentships, as well as essential infrastructure and equipment. The fundamental and translational science themes will provide the underpinning concepts that unify the disease-specific clinical themes, all of which are associated with significant global morbidity and mortality. In parallel, we will provide support for existing clinical academics to allow them the time and resources to develop their own research careers and grow translational cross-discipline projects. Aligned to this, will we will create a fellowship scheme to recruit Early Stage and Mid-career Researchers with the potential to become future academic leaders. These will be prestigious appointments associated with generous start up support (typically up to five years, including post-doctoral fellow, PhD students and consumables/equipment) with the opportunity to take up tenure track positions upon successful review. We anticipate that existing biomedical researchers across the University will migrate to the new Centre, creating a substantial integrated environment merging the new appointments with existing expertise across biomedicine.
Objective 3: Create an integrated physical space for partnership-working: The aim is to co-locate world-class fundamental cancer and biomedical researchers and clinical academics with precision medicine expertise in a bespoke multi-disciplinary translational environment. Our plans also include expansion of the cancer sciences footprint on the UHL site, incorporating; i) a focal point for near patient laboratory and clinical studies, ii) substantial expansion of existing tissue banking capabilities providing a state of the art biorepository with unrivalled access to tissue samples and histology core services, iii) a secure digital storage facility to host data and to power the simulations with the digital patient and digital oncologist models, and; iv) a Good Clinical Laboratory Practice (GCLP) compliant molecular pathology facility, which will incorporate DeCIPHER, our research engine for the development of digital precision medicine.
Objective 4: Build an integrated regional infrastructure: The Limerick DCRC will be at the heart of translational medicine across Limerick forging partnerships between fundamental science and engineering academic excellence, clinical practice and industry. This network will be underpinned by investments in world class fundamental and clinical research teams and cutting-edge technologies, and will transform the cancer research landscape in Ireland. The scientific vision of the Limerick DCRC will be driven not only by the fundamental science ‘push’ but also by the clinical ‘pull’. Our strategy to realise this ambition will be dependent upon strengthening existing interactions and developing new partnerships between fundamental scientists, clinical researchers and health service providers, including major stakeholders within the Graduate Entry Medical School (GEMS) and UHL. Therefore, the new chairs proposed as part of this investment will include significant clinical appointments, supported by clinical lectureships and clinical training fellows. Furthermore, since the busy caseloads of clinicians are a significant barrier to patient-centred research, we will also buy out time to enable existing clinicians to engage in Limerick DCRC research.
This regional infrastructure will in turn link with current national programs, such as the Precision Oncology Ireland consortium, further highlighting the regions expertise.
Objective 5: Engage with patient and public groups: The University of Limerick’s successful Public Patient Involvement (PPI) research group (this is one of the core themes of the Health Research Institute in addition to ULCaN) will be engaged to maximise the effectiveness of PPI activities within the Limerick DCRC. Key to this will be close cooperation with public and patient groups as well as patient representation on the Limerick DCRC Management Group, providing opportunities for patients to shape the research directions of the Limerick DCRC.