A shared platform for patients, researchers and clinicians

The Irish Association for Cancer Research (IACR) is an all-Ireland, non-profit organisation which brings together cancer researchers and healthcare professionals from all disciplines to share their expertise. The ultimate goal of the IACR is to improve the patient journey from diagnosis, through treatment, and through the lived experience of cancer. The IACR annual meeting is the key cancer research event in Ireland. In its 55th year, the annual conference was held in Belfast from Wednesday 20th to Friday 22 February 2019.

It was an amazing three-day event showcasing the exceptional cancer research being undertaken across the island of Ireland and beyond. The conference opened with a public event in honour of the late Professor Patrick (Paddy) G. Johnston from Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), where early-stage cancer researchers gave overviews of their research to a public forum. During the three days, national and internationally acclaimed speakers showcased the latest advances in the field of cancer research spanning from conventional treatments to more innovative approaches. Great emphasis was also given to the lived experience of patients with cancer and patients’ quality of life after treatment.

Combination therapies; novel strategies for cancer treatment

The excellent scientific sessions, which encompassed national and international renowned speakers, were linked by the theme of ‘combination therapies’. While conventional cancer treatments such as surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy have been used in combination for decades in an effort to treat cancer patients, the emergence of novel fields of cancer research have led to a renewed interest in combining conventional treatments with more innovative approaches. The realisation that cancer progression is not exclusively due to changes in the cancer cells, but also involves changes in the tumour surroundings as well as in the immune system, has opened new avenues for combination treatments.

Several examples of novel treatment strategies and novel treatment combinations were presented at the 55TH IACR Conference including immune metabolism, epigenetic therapies and physical exercise. For example, the positive effect of physical exercise in combination with conventional therapies as cancer management, at all stages of the lived experience with cancer was highlighted. In addition, novel technologies such as digital pathology and precision medicine, which will help to better tailor treatments to individual patients, were presented.

Patient and public involvement at the 55TH IACR Annual Conference

This year’s conference was opened by the first public event at an IACR Conference: ‘The Professor Patrick Johnston IACR Award for Excellence in Cancer Research Outreach‘. This award was designed to encourage early-stage researchers to engage with the general public to talk about and share their research. Six finalists were selected by a patient/researcher panel among 37 applicants who submitted a lay abstract of their work in advance of the annual conference. They had the hard task of presenting their research to the general public, including secondary school pupils.

A judging panel and the audience then voted for the most accessible presentation. The great success of this public session was in no small part due to a public engagement workshop held two weeks before the IACR meeting. During this workshop, researchers paired with patient mentors worked together to make science communication more accessible to the general public. While clinicians have regular meetings with cancer patients, cancer researchers very rarely have the opportunity to meet them. At the same time, cancer research might seem something difficult to grasp for the general public including patients.

This workshop was a great occasion for patients and researchers to meet and talk to each other. After a few exercises to “break the ice” including explaining their research projects in a 10 second sentence as if speaking to a 999 emergency call scenario, the patient/researcher pairs worked together to build a story around the research projects. This was a very useful exercise for all involved, especially for the early-stage researchers who learnt to look at the bigger picture and to value what really matters in describing clearly their research to patients and the general public.

We are now looking forward to the 56TH Annual Conference which will be a Joint European Association for Cancer Research (EACR) & IACR conference. We hope to see you in Galway from Wednesday 26th to Friday 28th of February 2020!