(Back row L-R) – John McCormack, Chief Executive, Irish Cancer Society; Liz O’Donnell, Director of Policy, Government Affairs and Communications, MSD; Michelle Gartland, Therapeutic Area Manager Oncology, Bayer HealthCare; Dr Linda Coate, Consultant Oncologist, University Hospital Limerick; Dr. Jerome Coffey, Director of the National Cancer Control Programme, HSE; Leisha Daly, Country Director at Janssen; Evelyn O’Rourke, journalist and cancer survivor; Dr. Jonathan Westrup, Programme Director of the IMI Diploma in Strategy and Innovation and of the IMI Diploma in Regulatory Management; Janet Culbert, Disease Area Manager, Novartis; (Front row L-R) – Eibhlin Mulroe, CEO Cancer Trials Ireland; Blánaid O’Connell, Medical Science Liaison, Merck Group and Dr Robert O’Connor, Head of Research, Irish Cancer Society
Professor Bryan Hennessy, clinical lead with Cancer Trials Ireland and Consultant Oncologist at Beaumont Hospital spoke to IMN about the benefits of such work.
Professor Bryan Hennessy has called on the government to pump increased funding into Ireland’s clinical cancer trials. “We estimate that for every euro the State puts into us, we give back three so it’s sort of a no-brainer, not just in terms of patient benefits but also in economic terms.
He highlighted the need for more awareness of the work being done on cancer trials, believing that people who don’t work in oncology don’t always understand the full benefit of trials such as these.
“I suppose coming off the back of the economic downturn didn’t help but it is incumbent on us to make sure that the government and the department are all aware of exactly why this is important,” he stressed.
Cancer Trials Ireland is encouraging the Government to increase their funding so that the number of patients participating in cancer drug trials in Ireland can double from three per cent (around 650 people) to six per cent (roughly 1300).
Professor Hennessy expressed concern that Ireland is lagging behind in this area. “In the UK, Norway, Denmark and America they have targets because they are aware of the benefits of trials. They aim for a certain percentage of people with cancer who should go on trials or should have access to trials and we’re sort of lagging behind in Ireland”.
Denmark, which is of a similar population size to Ireland, conducts over four times as many clinical trials, while in Norway twice as many are conducted.
To mark International Clinical Trials Day last month, Cancer Trials Ireland launched its ‘Just Ask Your Doctor!’ campaign, encouraging people living with cancer to ask their doctor about relevant cancer trials.
“We think it’s important for doctors at all levels, including GPs, to have some awareness if their patients ask. I think the improvements we’ve made to our website have made it a great resource for patients looking at their options. Even when it comes to someone like me, who is running the organisation, we have 150 studies on the books at the moment so no one is able to keep on top of that. Doctors can refer to the website too, to see whether trial options are available for certain patients”.
In his address, Professor Hennessy spoke of the benefits of clinical trials: “They stop people dying from cancer, they enable patients to get treatments not available by other means and they save the HSE more than €6 million annually in cancer medication costs.
“With a more stable economic outlook and one in three of us affected by cancer in Ireland, it is time for the government to increase its commitment in Budget 2018 to cancer trials research by at least €2.5 million annually.
“We also want the government to mainstream cancer trials as one of an array of treatment options for all who have been diagnosed with cancer. Cancer trials must not be seen as an outlier in the treatment of cancer”.
The consultant oncologist went on to outline the reasons why he fully supports the need for further funding: “Access to new treatments, the potential for improvement or survival, the drug cost savings, the idea of paying it forward so that the next generation has better treatment options.
“We in Cancer Trials Ireland see people with cancer and understand the importance of all these advantages and the need to make them available to our patients by ensuring that the infrastructure is in place. We need an optimally functioning network of cancer trials units across the country in all of the hospitals that work with Cancer Trials Ireland and that can’t happen without state support and state funding”.
Cancer Trials Ireland carries out more trials in Ireland than all other organisations combined through an independent network of 14 cancer trials research units in hospitals across the country.
“We can ensure that when a patient is treated, they are availing of the best treatment by an expert. Sometimes they may have to travel if their local hospital isn’t the one that provides a particular trial but we generally see that when it’s offered to people with cancer they’ll do it, it’s a small hurdle”.
On the influence of Brexit, Professor Hennessy projected that, for the most part, it could be a positive for Ireland. “Our feeling is that we can benefit from Brexit because traditionally Britain has been a gateway to Europe in terms of trials, pharmaceutical companies, and for research. There’s huge potential for us if we open a trial or act as a sponsor for a trial here, then it can automatically be opened throughout Europe.
“Currently, patients in the North who don’t have access to particular trials can benefit from our trials and vice versa and hopefully that will continue. But if Britain withdraw from Europe then that could create a problem in that relationship”.