A cross-border research programme using data and digital health skills at University of Limerick and Queen’s University Belfast is aiming to tackle a ‘future cancer epidemic’.
Researchers at the institutions are warning that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a ‘potentially disastrous impact’ on cancer care and patients and that action is needed now to prevent a crisis in the future.
This ambitious new research programme harnessing the collective data and digital health skills at University of Limerick and Queen’s University Belfast aims to generate the data intelligence required both to understand the potential scale of the cancer problem and to help devise solutions.
This programme of research has received significant funding of €4 million under the Shared Ireland North South Research Fund to establish an All Island eHealth Hub for Cancer.
“Cancer is the leading cause of death on the island of Ireland. The pandemic has halted or reversed advances in cancer outcomes. A lack of infrastructure to share digital health data is severely limiting cross-border cancer research, hindering our understanding of the full impact of COVID-19 on cancer outcomes on the island. Government reports say it is negatively impacting their ability to develop evidence-based policy,” explained Professor Aedin Culhane, Professor of Cancer Genomics at University of Limerick who is leading the project in partnership with Professor Mark Lawler, Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Digital Health at Queen’s University Belfast.
The team is aiming to harmonise cancer data, allowing comparisons to be made across the island. The application for funding was supported by over 30 clinicians in oncology and haematology in every Irish Cancer Centre, as well as major national cancer organisations.
“The eHealth-Hub will train researchers in real-world health data science and best practice in software development, developing infrastructure and software tools that can map all-island health data to a standard format,” explained Professor Culhane.
Professor Lawler explained: “One of the unexpected aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that, as a society, we are now much more familiar with data and statistics – be it daily numbers of people infected, percentage of the population vaccinated, or sadly, numbers of COVID deaths.
“In a way, we have all become armchair ‘data experts’. However, data is not just relevant to COVID itself. Unfortunately, data has also started to show us the potentially disastrous impact that the COVID pandemic has had on cancer services and ultimately cancer patients.
“If we do not act now, the current COVID pandemic we have lived through in the last two years will undoubtedly precipitate a future cancer epidemic. The way we will best mitigate the impact of COVID on cancer is through the use of data,” he added.
The grant received will fund up to 10 PhD Students, four postdocs, seven research assistants and a project manager between the sites involved.
Global standards for eHealth are being rapidly deployed by the UK/EU, however cross-border research on the impact of COVID-19 in cancer, participation in EU consortiums, eHealth SMEs and economic growth on the island of Ireland is limited by eHealth skills shortages, the researchers say.
“Cancer, like COVID, knows no borders, so working together across the island of Ireland is the best way for us to address the COVID-cancer challenge,” says Professor Culhane.
“We have already shown both in Ireland and Northern Ireland that the pandemic has had an impact, with fewer cancer diagnoses being made due to a combination of people with suspected cancer symptoms not attending their doctor or hospital due to fear of catching COVID, and services being curtailed due to the impact of the pandemic. But we need a comprehensive deep dive into the data in order to precisely dissect out in detail the scale of the problem and begin to bring forward data informed tangible solutions.”
The eHealth-Hub for Cancer offers a unique opportunity to employ data intelligence to mitigate the impact of COVID on cancer services and cancer patients and to answer some of the biggest challenges in cancer worldwide.
Professor Ruth Clifford, Consultant Haematologist at University Hospital Limerick, said: “This programme will unite cancer clinicians and researchers across the island in their combined efforts to understand the true demographic of cancer and all of its subtypes for the Irish population.
“Within Irish healthcare we do not have detailed data in the appropriate formats. Securing these data will allow us to engage with international research consortia and with industry to improve access to both cutting-edge diagnostics and therapeutics. There is an urgent clinical need to address the data deficit in Ireland and this project will not only begin to address this but will future proof our data needs for the 21st century.
“This pioneering collaborative effort convenes key stakeholders who deliver cancer care and who develop new knowledge around the causes and treatment of many cancer types. During the COVID pandemic my colleagues, both oncologists and haematologists, across the cancer centres of Ireland saw first-hand the detrimental effects of limited services and delayed diagnoses. The e-health hub will address these challenges with data-driven healthcare.
“This timely project will lead to greater efficiencies in clinical trial recruitment, offering new therapies for our patients, which is a major goal of the National Cancer Strategy. Feasibility studies are a key aspect of clinical trial recruitment, which rely on accurate data. One of the singular benefits of this new programme will be the collation of such data, leading to more targeted clinical trial recruitment and increased economic efficiencies.
“Data is the key to successful outcomes for our patients,” added Professor Clifford.
Professor Lawler added: “Our philosophy in the All Island eHealth Hub for Cancer is very clear – let’s turn data into intelligence and use that intelligence to enhance the health and wellbeing of our citizens and deliver societal benefit to our population.
“While the initial focus is on the impact of COVID on cancer, our all-island approach will address some of the most significant challenges that we face in a disease that is now the greatest killer on the island of Ireland. Uniting our combined expertise in data science and digital health and working with colleagues across the island, we will strive to ensure that cancer does not become the ‘forgotten C’ in the fight against COVID. Make no mistake - data can save lives.”