Bernie Ní Fhlatharta meets Professor Michael O’Dwyer, haematologist and researcher
Galway City Tribune, Friday, March 21, 2014
A drug that could save people’s lives is the goal of a Galway consultant who is at the heart of groundbreaking research into the treatment of blood cancer.
Professor Michael O’Dwyer considers himself lucky that he is not only doing one job he loves but two. He is a Consultant Haematologist at University Hospital Galway and he is also based at the Apoptosis Research Centre (ARC), a wing in the new Biomedical Science Building which opened in NUI Galway last month.
There he heads up research into blood cancers, in particular multiple myeloma and leukaemia, work that he hopes will one day lead to the development of a drug that will target these types of cancers.
Eighteen months ago, he obtained a prestigious Clinician Scientist Award from the Dublin-based Health Research Board to develop his translational research programme, and his close links with the pharmaceutical industry might some day lead to his findings translate from science bench to bedside.
Michael, whose father, Eamonn was a Professor of Obstetrics at UCH for over 35 years, loves research work and appreciates that if medics are to cure life-threatening diseases, it can only be done through research and development.
In the United States about $230m has been raised for this research alone – his research work was awarded €1.7m recently and already they are at phase one of clinical trials here in Galway.
“I have the best of both worlds in that I get to see patients and I also get to come here (to NUI Galway) to research blood cancers,” he says.
He explains it very simply: “Cancer cells produce abnormal sugars on their surface making them sticky, which helps them to travel around in the body and stick to the walls of organs.
“These cells become resistant to chemotherapy and standard cancer treatments. Our research here in Galway is revealing the role these abnormal sugars and enzymes play in cancer. There is evidence that these sugars are important in the development of leukaemia for example and in the spread of cancer.”
The first part of that research was identifying the sugars and the next part will be finding out how to inhibit or prevent them from being produced in the first place. In doing that, they will be less able to spread and will be easier to treat.
Michael stresses that these cancer-related sugars are not thought to be linked to lifestyle or diet and are just an intrinsic part of the disease.
He believes that research will lead to the development of a drug that will prevent the formation of these sugars and therefore stop cancers metastasising.
That would be a dream come true for him and he is currently working with a US pharmaceutical company to bring that vision closer to reality.
The ultimate plan is to provide results in the laboratory so that these strategies can be transferred to clinical trials in his native Galway.
“We are now conducting phase one of these clinical trials and this is the only centre in the world doing this, as in working with blood cancer patients.”
He explains that patients give their informed consent and that there’s no obligation on anyone to take part in these trials. In the last two years 16 patients have been put on the clinical trial but this number will be increased significantly in the future.
The research team includes Dr Siobhan Glavey, a PhD student who is based in the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Harvard, while the man who was responsible for getting Michael into research on his return to Galway is Professor Lokesh Joshi, Professor of Glycobiology.
“My interest in studying sugars in blood cancers came originally from discussing it with him,” Michael explains.
Michael studied medicine in NUI Galway but like many other graduates went abroad – he went to the United States in 1998, to do a fellowship in haematology in Portland, Oregon. There he was fortunate that he got to work on the development of a blockbuster drug now used in the treatment of cancer – and incidentally made in Ringaskiddy in County Cork.
“From that I developed a deep interest in research, particularly in the development of targeted therapies. Chemotherapy is a non-specific treatment and I was amazed with that particular treatment which had little or no side effects. It made an impression on me and my intention was to stay involved in the research of these types of drugs.”
Michael returned to Galway in 2002 to take up a clinical job and five years later was appointed Professor of Haematology, which allowed him one day a week in research.
He is deeply grateful to be able to work in his native city in the hospital and also in research, something he says is possible thanks to the good reputation of NUI Galway’s biomedical department, one that has been greatly enhanced with the opening of the new building at Corrib Village in Dangan. There are state-of-the-art laboratories with top-class equipment in the new facility and this is where he now heads up the research project.
When Michael started his research work in Galway it was in the Orbsen Building on the NUIG campus until the team moved to their new home just before Christmas.
He now has a growing group of researchers and he is also involved in other research for a small Irish company as well as being associated with a start-up company that has, in the pipeline, “very small molecule drugs that we believe could have great promise in the treatment of blood cancers”.
Michael agrees that it’s hard to compete with bigger universities when it comes to mainstream research as larger institutes have more resources but he believes that it’s important for an institution to play to its strengths.
“And here in Galway we have strengths that wouldn’t necessarily be mainstream like the glycosciences, where we have a particular expertise in this niche area. It’s then possible to be competitive in those areas. Another example is stem cell research.”
He has three brothers in medicine (one is a GP, one is an anaesthetist in the UK and another is an A&E Consultant in Kilkenny) and a brother practising as a barrister. He could have followed in his father’s footsteps as he won the Gold Medal in Obstetrics and in Pathology when he graduated but he preferred and chose pathology.
Blood cancers account for the top four or five cancers globally and multiple myeloma is the second most common blood cancer in Ireland, where about 240 new cases are diagnosed every year.
Michael says that while great strides had been made in the treatment and survival of patients with multiple myeloma, there was still room for improvement, which is why he remained dedicated to his research.
“It is vital that scientists across the entire Irish research spectrum work together to find new treatment approaches and improve patient outcomes.
“Our goal is to discover new ways to reduce the ability of the cancer cell to move to other sites within the body and identify new ways to make the cancerous cells more sensitive to chemotherapy drugs,” he says.
Michael is married to Clodagh Wade and they live in Salthill with their two young children aged seven and ten.
He admits that the plan had always been to return to Galway when the right job turned up and luckily for him and his young family it did.
“When I came back it was not with the intention of doing any academic work but once I got bitten by the bug (in the US), I got drawn back to research and I consider myself lucky to be able to do that here in Galway.
“Ultimately, it would be fantastic to be in a position to see it (the new drug) in action on patients,” he says with a quiet determination.
Michael also lectures third and final year medical students as well as giving tutorials in the college.
Yet, for all his responsibilities, he comes across as a relaxed man who is at ease with himself and the world. One thing for sure, he is very content being exactly where he is — at the cutting edge of research that will undoubtedly one day save lives.