Pioneer consultant beats the system to save Irish lives

New drug trials for blood cancer set to save HSE €7m

When Gerry, a man in his early forties, stopped responding to blood cancer therapy, Professor Peter O’Gorman knew that his patient had reached the end of the line. He also knew that drugs licensed in the US might help, but they would not be available here in time to help Gerry.

Peter O’Gorman is consultant haematologist at the Mater Hospital. He became increasingly frustrated that people in Irish hospitals were dying while their US counterparts experienced better outcomes using drugs yet to be licensed here.

“If a cancer patient in Ireland is relapsing and the conventional options have been exhausted, we need the best available options available in real time,” says Dr O‘Gorman.

He looked beyond the Irish health system to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard University in Boston. He worked out a collaboration whereby Irish patients could participate in new drug trials in the US. O’Gorman established MIRT Ireland (The Mater Institute for Research and Therapy in Blood Health Innovation) to secure the latest drugs for Irish patients.

Now, seven years on, Irish blood cancer patients have real time access to new drugs developed in the US, at no cost to the health service. The outcomes tell the story. Irish blood cancer patients are doing better than most of their European counterparts. Survival and response rates here have doubled.

“In 2010 I took over as the chair of the Irish Clinical Oncology Research Group blood cancer trials committee. Since the programme started, 170 patients have been enrolled in 32 new blood cancer trials,” O’Gorman explains. “As well as providing desperately needed treatment options, the trials save millions of euro on treatment that would have been used in the absence of a trial.”

The most recent round of trials, due to start this week, will involve 42 patients at a cost saving of €174,592 each. That’s a total saving of €7 million to the HSE.

“A new trial for Multiple Myeloma patients is about to proceed simultaneously in the Dana Farber Institute in Boston and in eight centres in Ireland, ” O’Gorman explains. “The RVDsq trial consists of the best available therapies in Myeloma combined in an innovative and highly effective way. I am delighted that Irish patients will have the opportunity to benefit from this.”

The drug trials are only part of the story. Dr O’Gorman wants to ensure that Irish consultants are involved in international blood cancer research. “In the US, it is routine for consultants to spend up to two days a week researching their field. There is no such “protected time” system here.”

MIRT is training doctors to become ‘clinician-scientists’ with both clinical qualifications and a background in blood cancer research, through a PhD programme in DCU twinned with the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. There is also an undergraduate MSc and summer studentship programme for medical students and science students at UCD. “So far we have put eight doctors and eight undergraduate students through our summer studentship, MSc and PhD programmes,” he reports.

O‘Gorman and his team have, in his own words, ‘scraped the money together’ through fundraising. Most of the money has come from friends and families of those who benefited from the trials.

“We established a fellowship program named for our patients, because without their bravery and commitment, we would not have made the great progress we have made in the last seven years,” says O’Gorman. “People such as Sister Martha Hegarty (pictured), who worked so hard for people with intellectual disabilities in her lifetime, also made a huge contribution to our understanding of blood cancer by taking part in these trials when she was diagnosed with leukaemia.”

Sister Martha’s friends and family have raised thousands of euro to support Irish haematologists to conduct blood cancer research, through the Sister Martha Hegarty Fellowship at DCU.

While the HSE provides support for the running of the Irish Clinical Oncology Research Group, O’Gorman says that more support is needed at the sites of the drug trials, particularly in relation to the hiring of drug trial staff. “I hope to engage constructively with the HSE on this,” he says. “We are making great progress but a lot more could be achieved with further investment.”

So what’s next for MIRT?  Peter O’Gorman feels that the Irish public could do with an education in blood cancer (see panel). He also fervently hopes that Irish health policy makers will think long term when it comes to cancer treatment in Ireland.

“Further investment is required so that we can reach our full potential.  Irish patients deserve the best. They deserve the best consultants and they deserve access to the best cutting edge treatments. That is what our programme has tried to achieve.”

 

On December 10th Dublin roots band I Draw Slow will play a gig in aid of blood cancer research in Whelans of Wexford Street. Tickets €25 from whelanslive.com. All proceeds go to MIRT Ireland (The Mater Institute for Research and Therapy in Blood Health Innovation  –  mirtireland.com/materfoundation.ie)

PANEL: Blood Cancer – facts and figures

Two new cases of blood cancer are diagnosed every day in Ireland

More than one in ten people diagnosed with cancer in Ireland every year have cancer of the blood. Yet, compared to others cancers with similar impact, such as lung and colorectal, blood cancer has a low public profile

There are several types of blood cancer including multiple myeloma, leukaemia and lymphoma

Blood cancers affect the blood, the bones and the kidney< Survival rates for blood cancer have doubled in Ireland in the last 5 years, thanks to the work of the Mater Institute for Research and Therapy in Blood Health Innovation (MIRT Ireland) Source irishtimes.ie

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