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

Thu, 23 Sep 2021

A 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 will use and develop technologies that are revolutionizing health care and have vast potential to improve our ability to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.

Speaking about the Centre, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris, TD, said: “I really welcome this new Digital Cancer 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.

“It is so exciting to see the breadth of work being carried out that is going to impact positively on all of our lives,” Minister Harris added.

UL President Professor Kerstin Mey said: “The Limerick Digital Cancer Centre will build on UL’s strength and apply state of the art approaches to research cancer 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.

“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,” added Professor Mey.

UL Vice President Research Professor Norelee Kennedy said the Centre developed “particularly as a research collaboration with the University Hospital Limerick and as a collaboration that has come about as a result of high level of engagement and enthusiasm across the teams in the hospital and the University.

“The formation of the centre follows the recognition by all parties that there is an urgent need to improve cancer care, not just in Ireland, but across the world, so that ultimately every single patient can receive the very highest standard of care and in turn the best possible chance of survival.

“At the heart of this is the need to better understand cancer as a complex disease, which can only come about through ground-breaking research and is why the University and the University Hospital have in partnership chosen to invest in the development of this Centre. The LDCRC, which is part of our Health Research Institute brings together strengths in UL in biomedical research with other disciplines such as artificial intelligence and also has significant engagement with the Bernal Institute as well as with Lero, the SFI Centre for Software. Put together this collective offers a very unique, additional offering to the cancer research landscape nationally and internationally.”

UL Hospitals Group CEO Colette Cowan said: “UHL 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%.

“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. I congratulate Prof Kerstin Mey and the University of Limerick on their vision and their commitment to improving patient care in our region,” she added.

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,” says 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.

Computational systems oncology or cancer bioinformatics is the name of the research field that builds artificial intelligence and statistical methods that search biological data to better understand cancer. 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, who recently took up her post at the UL School of Medicine.

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.

“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.”