From training the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells, to robotic cancer surgery, the options for treating cancer are entering a new era.

Cancer Week Ireland 2016 kicks off today with a conference at Trinity College Dublin to explore new frontiers in personalised cancer care. Scientists and clinicians will discuss the future of treating cancer and how personalised and targeted therapy using the latest techniques in immunotherapy, surgery and genomic profiling are fundamentally changing the way we approach this disease.

In fact, cancer is not one disease at all, and there is no single magic bullet cure. Even within specific cancer types such as breast, prostate or lung, there are considerable differences between tumours of the same type in different patients, and between cancer cells within a tumour.

While treatments in the 1960s and 1970s employed one-size-fits-all blunderbuss type therapies, often with highly toxic side effects, the key to current and future cancer treatment lies in individualised innovative approaches for each patient’s particular cancer. This involves combining new and traditional therapies, an increased use of genomic profiling and new methods of determining a patient’s likelihood of responding to various treatments. Science, technology and clinical treatment have moved far beyond what many people commonly understand about cancer and how science and medicine are fighting it.

Dr David Gallagher, Consultant Medical Oncologist and Consultant Medical Geneticist at St James’ Hospital Dublin who heads up the cutting edge Cancer Genetics Unit in St James’ explained: “Over the past decade cancer treatment has become more precise. Personalised treatments have been used to target specific abnormalities in patients’ cancers with some notable success stories such as the breast cancer drug Herceptin. However, most cancers are too complex to succumb to single targeted treatments and consequently, progress in this area slowed somewhat after their discovery. Attempts to combine multiple targeted therapies have been hampered by the overlapping toxicities of the individual drugs, and for a period of time the promise of personalised cancer care plateaued.”

Dr Gallagher continued: “In the past one to two years optimism is returning. Treatments that modulate the immune system, effectively turning the person’s immune system against their cancer have produced some remarkable results. These agents are now being combined with targeted treatment, in addition to traditional chemotherapeutic agents and radiation, to make the cancers even more recognisable to the person’s immune system, thus priming them for targeting.”

“Another significant recent development is the emergence of, what’s known as, germline genetic predictors of response to treatment. What this means is that an individual’s core DNA that they inherit from their parents not only determines what diseases they get, but also predicting their response to different treatments.”

“Finally the growing awareness of the relevance of the epigenome – chemical compounds that can tell the genome what to do – in the formation of cancer, and the ability to target the epigenome, holds considerable promise for stopping and reversing cancer very early in its development.”

Dr Gallagher concluded: “These innovations will change cancer care dramatically over the next decade. Our greatest challenge may be to ensure that our creaking healthcare system maintains pace with this progress.”

Initiated by the Irish Cancer Society and Trinity College Dublin, Cancer Week Ireland is encouraging a national conversation about cancer this October. That conversation hopes to create a greater understanding of what cancer is, how we can better prevent it, detect it, treat it and how to survive and thrive afterwards.

Between Monday 17th October and Sunday 23rd October, communities and organisations around the country are hosting events for patients, medical professionals and members of the public, to be part of the conversation. All events are available on cancerweek.ie

Some of the key events taking place during Cancer Week Ireland are:

  • ‘Living Well with Cancer’, the annual National Conference for Cancer Survivorship organised by the Irish Cancer Society, (Saturday, 22nd October, Aviva Stadium Dublin).
  • The tenth International Cancer Conference, hosted by Trinity College Dublin, (Monday, 17th October, Trinity College Dublin).
  • ‘Cancer Prevention: from Denis Burkitt to the Human Genome Project’, a talk by the 2017 recipient of the Burkitt Medal, Dr Paul Brennan, Head of the Genetics Section of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC/WHO), Lyon, France. (Tuesday, 18th October, 16.20pm, Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute, Trinity College Dublin).

Donal Buggy, Head of Services and Advocacy at the Irish Cancer Society said “Cancer treatments have advanced significantly over the years and this is evidenced by increasing survival rates. Cancer survival rates in Ireland are at an all-time high, but the number of people diagnosed with cancer here is rising and is expected to double by 2040. It is therefore vital that we continue to invest in cancer research in order to better understand and treat this extremely complex disease.”

About Cancer Week Ireland

Cancer Week Ireland is the brain child of the Irish Cancer Society and Trinity College Dublin. Ireland’s first Cancer Week took place in 2014 and the theme was ‘Living with Cancer’.

This inaugural Cancer Week brought together national and international experts to discuss improvements in cancer treatments, as well as tackling the physical and emotional consequences that a cancer diagnosis can bring.

In 2015 the Cancer Week concept continued to grow and led to another successful week-long programme of events in September on the theme of cancer research and clinical trials.

Now in its third year, Cancer Week is rolling out nationally to become Cancer Week Ireland. This year it wants to start a national conversation about cancer and how more people are surviving as more advances are made in detection and treatment.

For more information and to see a list of events taking place, please visitcancerweek.ie.