Hands up who does not know somebody affected by cancer? Those that can answer in the affirmative are in the minority in Ireland, but with the work of researchers like Dr Róisín Dwyer the group might not be so elite in years to come.
Dr Dwyer is one of a team of cancer researchers operating out of NUI Galway, and her work in the use of Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSCs) – adult stem cells in layman’s terms – for the treatment of breast cancer tumours seems to have broken new ground.
Like many, Dr Dwyer was attracted to cancer research after witnessing close family members suffer with the disease, but the Dublin-native says it was her inquisitive mind that saw her drawn to research.
“Growing up, I never accepted what I was told; I always had to find something out for myself, everything was questioned and I suppose that is what pushed me towards research,” she says.
A keen interest in sciences during secondary school developed into a science degree in UCD, and then a Masters in Biological Science at DCU, before she returned to UCD to complete her PHD. A further three years was spent at the world famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester in Minnesota, before Dr Dwyer returned home to Ireland six years ago.
“Breast cancer research was always the field I had intended working in and arriving in Galway to work with Professor Michael Kerin allowed me to do just that. He is a renowned expert in the field and the chance to work with doctors every day and see what problems they encounter is invaluable to us.”
Dr Dwyer picked up the ‘Irish Cancer Society Researcher of the Year’ award for her research titled: ‘Adult Stem cells: Have Tumour? Will Travel’, which investigates the use of stem cells for use as drug delivery vehicles.
“We all have adult stem cells, mainly in the marrow of our bones and they have a tendency to travel through the bloodstream, by-passing healthy tissue to arrive at the location of damaged tissue.
“While we don’t fully understand why the cells do this, we decided to try and use them as vehicles to deliver genes to the site of tumours. And in laboratory studies we have proven that tumours treated with the cells are five times smaller than those not treated.”
While clinical trials are quite some time away, Dr Dwyer thinks that extensive studies in to the safety of the procedure can result in a positive outcome.
“That is a long way down the line; we need to complete more work into the detail of any possible site effects. Up to now there are no side effects whatsoever, but that has to be studied over the long term to make sure it is a safe treatment.
“Our research is mainly funded by the NBCRI (National Breast Cancer Research Institution), which is a national charity based in Galway, but we are also assisted by the Irish Cancer Society, the National Rehabilitation Board and Science Federation of Ireland. Without their funding and support, we wouldn’t be in a position to do the work required. Without their help, we are nothing,” she says.
Dr Dwyer also says that any personal success she has had would not have been possible without the influence of her parents, Marie and Eddy, who were “hugely supportive despite my decision to stay in college for so long”. And, after globetrotting for many years, she is delighted to be able to finally have somewhere to call home.
“I only ever knew Galway from coming to the races every year with my family. Now I get to host them for the festival. Galway is a great town, there is a great vibe around the place and, after buying a house here, I think I will be here for some time to come.”