Cancer knows no borders — neither should we

The all-Ireland cancer initiative which grew out of the Good Friday Agreement has resulted in a doubling of collaborative cancer research and cancer clinical trials which have saved thousands of lives
Cancer knows no borders — neither should we

Ireland and Northern Ireland now punch above their collective weight in cancer research. Working together, we will be unbeatable.

As the Stormont Assembly and the various activities in Government Buildings wind down in the run-up to elections in May, concerns persist in relation to the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol. But one initiative which grew out of the Good Friday Agreement continues to prosper and positively influence the lives of citizens on the island of Ireland. 

On Sunday, October 3, 1999, a partnership was signed at Government Buildings in Stormont between the Departments of Health of Ireland and Northern Ireland and the world-renowned US National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, giving rise to the Ireland-Northern Ireland NCI Cancer Consortium. 

The consortium had an ambitious aim: "to reduce cancer incidence and mortality on the island of Ireland through cross-border and transatlantic collaborations in cancer research and education". 

Those fortunate enough to have attended that event back in 1999 will remember the optimism and “can-do” attitude that pervaded Government Buildings on that day.

Thankfully, that optimism was not misplaced. The impact of the consortium has been significant. An article published in the European Journal of Cancer indicated what has been achieved in the intervening 20+ years — a doubling of collaborative cancer research on the island, an increase in the quality of that research such that it was published in the best-quality scientific journals, an all-island cancer atlas, published together by the cancer registries in Ireland and Northern Ireland and significant partnerships with premier US cancer institutions. 

Thousands of lives saved

Crucially, more than 35,000 patients were enrolled in cancer clinical trials during the period, saving thousands of lives, while over 500 healthcare professionals and scientists were trained at the NCI since 2000, many returning to enhance cancer research and care on the island of Ireland. 

NCI’s clinical director Dr Bill Dahut highlighted the significant progress that has been made over the past two decades when he said: “Ireland and Northern Ireland together are now firmly embedded on the global cancer research map.” 

The consortium’s success led to the re-signing of the agreement on Tuesday, March 16, 2021, by Health Minister Stephen Donnelly and Robin Swann, Minister of Health for Northern Ireland and NCI director Dr Norman Sharpless. 

A particular highlight was then newly elected president Joe Biden emphasising his commitment to supporting this ground-breaking initiative in his opening remarks at his virtual meeting with Taoiseach Micheál Martin on St Patricks Day 2021. 

The Economist recognised what the All-Ireland Cancer Consortium had achieved by dedicating a special session to its impact on the opening day of its prestigious World Series Conference. 

One of us (ML) shared the virtual stage with Dr Norman (Ned) Sharpless, director of the US NCI, as we discussed together how this initiative had driven better-quality research and improved outcomes for citizens on the island of Ireland, while also serving as a blueprint for how to develop high-quality collaborative partnerships that deliver tangible impacts for patients worldwide.

Significant diagnostic and treatment delays

Today, our need to focus on cancer could not be greater. While thankfully, we are starting to see a return to more normal living, with Covid restrictions lifted across the island, we continue to struggle with the disastrous indirect impact of the pandemic, precipitating significant diagnostic and treatment delays for cancer patients and those at risk of developing cancer, leading to a backlog both on the island of Ireland and across the pond in the US. 

Delivering the best cancer care for patients on this island can best be achieved through collaborative research. 

This is an unparalleled opportunity to work together to combat a disease that will affect one in two people on this island during their lifetime, particularly given the US president’s clear commitment to cancer research and care, reiterated in his relaunch of the US Cancer Moonshot on February 3 last, the eve of World Cancer Day. 

Cancer knows no borders, neither should we. Recently, following an extremely competitive process, we received a €4m Health Education Authority Strand III award from the Shared Island North-South Research Fund to help establish an All-Island Cancer Research Institute (AICRI). 

The Shared Island Unit, housed in the Office of An Taoiseach, provides a perfect vehicle to help drive this patient-focused initiative that can further save so many lives.

Ireland and Northern Ireland now punch above their collective weight in cancer research. Working together through AICRI, and in close cooperation with our prestigious US partner, we will be unbeatable. We need to compete, not against each other, but against our common enemy… which is cancer.

  • Professor Mark Lawler is associate pro-vice chancellor, professor of digital health and chair in translational cancer genomics at Queen’s University Belfast. He has been prominent in advocating for an all-island approach to cancer research and care and played a leading role in the reinvigoration and re-signing of the Cancer Consortium agreement. In 2021, he received the Irish Association for Cancer Research (IACR) outstanding contribution to cancer research and medicine award, for his pioneering work on cancer research and care on the island of Ireland.

  • Professor William (Liam) Gallagher is a full professor of cancer biology at UCD’s School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science and deputy director of Precision Oncology Ireland. He was the recipient of Science Foundation Ireland’s 2021 Researcher of the Year Award in honour of his many outstanding achievements in the field of cancer research. He has been a driving force behind the All-Island Cancer Research Institute (AICRI) and is committed to delivering high-quality research that can be translated for the benefit of patients.

Prof Gallagher and Prof Lawler are presenting their joint vision for an All-Island Cancer Research Institute today Wednesday, March 30, at the Annual Conference of the Irish Association for Cancer Research in Cork.

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