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Interview w/ Dr Robert O'Connor

Dr Robert O’Connor is the current director of research in the Irish Cancer Society. Before taking on this role, he worked as a researcher after completing his undergraduate degree in UCD and PhD in DCU. In this article, we discuss the career path that led to this role, the amazing work that the Irish Cancer Society do for patients every day, how the pandemic has affected research, and the importance of scientific standards.

The Irish Cancer Society is almost 100% funded by donations, which fluctuate throughout the year, and all of the activities they carry out are dependent on that. Daffodil day is particularly important as they bring in about a third of their whole year of income on the one day. Broadly speaking, there are three groups of external activities carried out by the society – advocacy, patient services, and research. Advocacy involves trying to influence the government’s decisions in terms of health promotion and provision for patients. They provide a huge range of services up to and including terminal care for people in their homes. They are the largest funder of cancer research outside of the state in Ireland and they have huge investments in a number of programs in places like Trinity and St. James’s.

Dr O’Connor first became interested in science in school as he always had a curiosity about why things happen the way they do. He went on to study general science in UCD, where he found a love for lab work, which was further fostered by doing his 4th year research project. He was then awarded a grant to do a PhD in DCU, where he also did his postdoctoral research in cancer research. A lot of his research was in cell models and analytical pharmacology like measuring drug levels using HPLC and mass spec and developing clinical trials. He always liked to push the limits of the science he was doing. A lot of science focuses on papers but having impact was a priority for him, leading him to get involved in clinical trials. He got the attention of Professor John Crown who brought him in to lead up the science aspect of a number of trials along with some other commissions. He is one of the few people in Ireland, if not the world, who has been involved in taking something from the lab right up to testing in human beings in trials. He was involved in the national cancer research scene and ultimately was headhunted by the Irish Cancer Society in 2015.

There are a number of responsibilities which come with this role in the society. The director of research is responsible for a team of people who oversee grants and awards and they have a strategy to try and grow and foster patient focused research in Ireland and to do that they need a vibrant, thriving research community. They put a lot of money into cancer trials and increasingly now they are putting money into survivorship. As cancer treatments have advanced, more people are surviving and living with cancer and it is important to grow our understanding of how to get the best out of that. This involves how to help people recover, how to overcome fatigue and how to try and get them back to whatever normal is for them. A big part of what they do is oversee grants and awards and there is a big governance process because they are giving people hundreds of thousands of euro of donors money so there is a big responsibility that comes with that. They use international experts to avoid bias. Another role that Dr O’Connor has is in science communication. He provides a lot of the technical knowledge which includes debunking misinformation, which there is a huge amount of with regards to cancer.

There are a few major things going on in cancer research right now. The growth in survivorship research is definitely one of these and this year, the ICS will announce the winner of a 4 million euro award in survivorship so there is definitely a recognition of the needs and opportunities in this type of research. On the therapeutic side, each of the major areas of therapeutics are seeing significant advances. This includes new targeted medicines which are giving a lot of hope for effective, less toxic treatments that could be tailored to specific cancers. Immunotherapy is an exciting area. Not everybody responds to this type of therapy and there is a growing understanding of who will benefit from the treatments so they can be best used. There are also some really exciting developments in radiotherapy, like more targeted delivery. There are advances all the time in surgical processes and new ways of reconstruction which can be beneficial.

The pandemic has had a devastating effect on cancer research. There were huge problems with the actual practicalities of research during lockdown when universities were closed. There were delays and shortages in critical materials so a lot of molecular biology was held up as there was a huge focus on testing. The equipment, reagents and solvents typically used were all in short supply. In terms of clinical trials, most stopped taking on patients or stopped altogether as they were trying to keep people alive and keep them COVID-free. So patient numbers on trials declined substantially which has been very difficult. The research community has been vital and robust throughout the pandemic. People moved to writing up papers and theses from home, people adapted their projects to take account of different timelines and some stepped up and supported COVID efforts as well. There were people who volunteered to do contact tracing or used their lab skills to optimise PCR reagents.

It is imperative to research that scientific standards are upheld, which includes statistical standards, and ethical standards. For example, a third of biomedical research is wrong, inaccurate, or overt intentional fraud. And pretty much all research is undertaken at somebody else’s expense. People need to be very careful about making inflated and false claims about their research; and this is particularly important in health areas, as this can create false hope which will ultimately be dashed. So there is ultimately there is a lot of responsibility that comes with research, so it is important that researchers have a moral compass so they do research right, efficiently, not waste money, and make the best use of it. There is a big problem in cancer research with replication, and there is a lot of waste as a result of that. This waste can translate into inappropriate clinical trials so people will be on trials that are never going to work. Statistical and other types of rigour are very important and everybody that that has gone on to be senior in research has seen these things first hand and therefore has an appreciation of how important they are. Because we spend a lot of time at undergraduate level learning about a particular pathway or PCR or whatever, I think there is maybe less emphasis on some of those really core fundamental principles than there should be.

As well as performing good science, there are other things that are important when it comes to being a good researcher. The most important thing, when it comes to looking into a career in research, is to follow what you love. It is also important to not just be focused on the knowledge of the individual science. For example, in Dr O’Connor’s role, he has to manage people and challenging situations like budgets and other things. So it is vital to get as much experience in those other areas as you can, like personal management and communication skills. Eventually everyone leaves the lab. If you are good, you may end up in management or teaching to invest in those skills. Networks are really important and so is staying adaptable. They say that people have to reinvent themselves or take on new skills about every five years and that goes for scientists as well as everybody else. So it is important to accept that there will always be change and new technologies.

I would like to thank Dr Robert O’Connor for taking the time to speak to us and hope you all enjoyed reading the interview as much as I did carrying it out.

If you are impacted by cancer, the ICS helpline is 1800200700.

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