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UCD professor named researcher of the year for life-extending cancer treatment

Prof William Gallagher hopes new drug will improve quality of life for cancer patients

Prof William Gallagher of University College Dublin (UCD) has been named Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Researcher of the Year for 2021 at the prestigious SFI Science Awards. The awards recognise and celebrate the contributions made by the key leaders in the Irish research community.

“I am greatly honoured to receive this prestigious award,” Prof Gallagher said. “I am indebted to the various members of my research group, both past and present, along with other colleagues in academia and industry across the world that I have had the great pleasure to collaborate with.

"One in two people in Ireland will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime. Indeed, practically every family in the country is being or has been affected in some way by this complex collection of diseases, including my own. Our cancer research work has been focused on taking new discoveries from the laboratory bench and bringing them closer to clinical implementation."

Prof Gallagher is a full professor of cancer biology at UCD and deputy director of Precision Oncology Ireland, a large-scale SFI strategic partnership programme involving five academic institutions, six cancer charities, including the Irish Cancer Society, and eight companies. He is currently leading OPTi-PREDICT, an SFI investigator programme focused on identification and validation of prognostic biomarkers for early-stage breast and prostate cancer.


He has been involved in a number of significant cancer research breakthroughs, including the development of the OncoMasTR PCR assay which was clinically validated in more than 2,400 early-stage breast patient samples from Ireland, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Austria.

"The test allows one to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, in hormone receptor-positive patients with early-stage breast cancer whether they will exhibit distant metastases over a 10-year period," Prof Gallagher said.

“If they have low risk of subsequently getting distant metastasis, then one can potentially recommend avoidance of chemotherapy while still staying on hormone therapy and therefore avoid the associated side effects of chemotherapy,” he added.

The technology, which is a PCR-based, received the CE Mark in 2018 by the spin-out company, OncoMark, co-founded by Prof Gallagher. "OncoMark was acquired by a third party earlier this year and I would hope that the assay would be available clinically within the next year or two."

Gallagher is also a co-founder of OncoAssure, another molecular diagnostics company focused initially on developing a similar test in the area of early-stage prostate cancer.

"The other subgroup of breast cancer that we have worked on is triple negative breast cancer, TNBC for short," he continued. "Until recently, the only option in this particular challenging tumour type, which tends to be more frequent in younger women and has a tendency towards more aggressive disease, has been chemotherapy. The door has been blown wide open recently with the approval by the US FDA [Food and Drug Administration] in July 2021 of the use of the immune checkpoint inhibitor, pembrolizumab, together with chemotherapy in early stage TNBC patients."


He believes it will be some time before this potentially game-changing drug is approved and available in Ireland, however, his “research focuses on an ability to detect immune cells which are presented in the tumour tissue, measure them and subdivide them up into different classes, such as good or bad immune cells. This has important implications for predicting outcomes for patients not only on conventional chemotherapy alone but also potentially with this new treatment form when it hopefully becomes available.

“We have also identified other druggable targets in TNBC, such as the protein CDK7. As indicated, when CDK7 protein levels are high in a breast cancer tissue specimen, this is correlated with poorer outcomes for the patients concerned. We showed in early work using model systems that anti-CDK7 drugs could have potential therapeutic efficacy.”

Clinical trials are now ongoing in the UK and US in relation to the use of anti-CDK7 drugs, with initial promise shown.

Prof Gallagher is also helping to lead a very significant initiative to bring together cancer researchers of all types across the island of Ireland, covering areas of cancer prevention, diagnostics, treatment and survivorship.

The All-Island Cancer Research Institute brings together 10 academic institutions and their affiliated hospitals across the island of Ireland, as well as Cancer Trials Ireland, the director of the National Cancer Control programme, and representatives of charities such as the Irish Cancer Society and patient advocates.

“We want to help patients live longer and better lives after their cancer diagnosis,” he said. “We will connect cancer researchers across the island of Ireland and work alongside patients with cancer to make sure that their voice is heard. By coming together, we can harness all of our different skills and expertise to better understand cancer, to develop more personalised treatment options, to ease suffering and save lives.”