Sunday 21 January 2018

'There is a revolution in what is happening in cancer treatment'

Prof Stephen Finn pictured in the Cancer molecular diagnostics lab [CMD] at St James Hospital. Pic Frank Mc Grath
Prof Stephen Finn pictured in the Cancer molecular diagnostics lab [CMD] at St James Hospital. Pic Frank Mc Grath
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Irish scientists are leading the way when it comes to analysing the genes in cancer cells and finding 'weak spots' that can be exploited in the treatment of the disease.

Stephen Finn, Associate Professor in Histopathology at Trinity College Dublin and consultant pathologist at St James's Hospital, is one of the researchers on the iPROSPECT initiative for prostate cancer.

He is working with other scientists, clinicians, nurses, and statisticians to develop individualised and tailor-made treatments.

The aim of iPROSPECT is to improve patient outcomes by using precision diagnostics .

"It's all about finding the right treatment for the right patient at the right time," says Professor Finn.

He looks for mutations in the DNA of tumour cells that circulate in the blood of men with advanced prostate cancer.

By identifying certain mutations in these cancer cells, clinicians can recommend the most appropriate drug or treatment to target the cancer. It is known as "next generation sequencing".

Professor Finn is working in the innovative field of liquid biopsies, where tumour fragments can be detected in the blood.

Using this technique doctors and researchers can determine the best course of treatment - using a simple blood test - and constantly monitor how well it is working. "There are a whole variety of drugs for prostate cancer that have been developed and they have shown great potential.

"But some people don't respond to them and they have side effects.

"We are trying to figure out which patients will respond to which drugs.

"We can use blood tests to figure out what is best for the patient."

Professor Finn believes Ireland has made progress in cancer care through the introduction of centres of excellence. The closures of smaller cancer-treatment centres were opposed by local politicians, but ensured that patients received more specialist care.

"The next big frontier is in expert molecular testing. Ireland needs a national genome-sequencing centre.

"We need a centre with a critical mass of expertise in DNA analysis.

"There is a revolution in what is happening in cancer treatment.

"If you look at what is happening in lung cancer, there has been enormous progress. Lung cancer used to be a death sentence.

"A few patients have responded to targeted therapy or immunotherapy (where the cancer cells are attacked by activating the immune system).

"We haven't seen a cure but several patients have increased longevity."

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