Friday, January 06, 2017

Philana Fernandes. Photo by Tomas Tyner, UCC.

One of the women involved in ground- breaking cancer research in Cork, talks to MARIA ROLSTON about her work, ahead of a fundraising event for Women’s Little Christmas

CORK Cancer Research Centre (CCRC) is a “great place to work” where women can “achieve their full potential” in science, technology and medicine. So says female scientist, Dr Philana Fernandes.

In fact, you could say that the research centre, run under the auspices of UCC — which last year received the Athena SWAN award for its efforts to improve female representation in higher education, particularly in science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics (STEMM) — is flying the flag for women in science, with its almost 50:50 staff gender balance.

“There’s a great number of women here and that’s quite unusual,” said Dr Fernandes. “It’s definitely a place where women can achieve their full potential in STEMM. It is more difficult, the higher up you get. There are very few principal research investigators out there but we do have a female principal investigator here at the CCRC and that might be something to do with being part of UCC and its efforts to improve female representation.”

Dr Fernandes moved to Cork from the UK six years ago to carry out ground-breaking cancer research here. She says the fact that the CCRC is a multi-disciplinary organisation, with scientists working in close collaboration with doctors, means they’re bridging the the gap between science and medicine and aiming to speed up the development of effective new treatments.

Now investigating how to effectively harness the immune system to target pancreatic cancer, Dr Fernandes examined cell death and the immune response in colon cancer for her Phd at UCC before joining the pancreatic cancer research team at CCRC.

It’s an area of research that she’s passionate about, primarily because the survival rate for pancreatic cancer is so low, and she says she feels driven to do what she can to help develop new, effective treatment for the killer disease.

“It’s still early days in terms of research but it’s exciting because really anything we can do to improve the outcome for pancreatic cancer patients is worth looking at.

“The survival rate is so low and the only current treatment for pancreatic cancer is removal of the tumorous area, but the reality is that 80% of people with pancreatic cancer cannot be surgically resected for various [complex medical] reasons and 85% to 90% of people with pancreatic cancer die within three years.

“It can also be a cancer that doesn’t present itself until very late. The symptoms are non-specific and can be easily confused with something else. Unfortunately, most people with pancreatic cancer don’t arrive at the doctor’s until it’s already spread throughout the body. So really, it’s a dire situation and there’s a real need to get a new treatment out there,” she said.

However, Dr Fernandes says the potential for the treatment therapy that she and the research team, led by Dr Patrick Forde, are working on is “very promising” because, simply put, it aims to adapt a technique that has already been used successfully on external cancers such as skin melanoma.

“It’s electrochemotherapy and it has a brilliant track record on skin cancers and melanoma and we’re now investigating how to adapt the technology so that it can be used internally for any kind of cancer that’s not visible to the naked eye.

“Using this translational approach is ideal because, even though it could still take years to get a treatment out there, it’s still definitely a shorter time frame and is a less siloed approach to research.”

Dr Fernandes’s research is funded by the Pancreatic Research Fund UK and by Breakthrough Cancer Research here in Cork. She says that the staff at CCRC are extremely grateful to the people of Cork for helping to fund their work and progress cancer research.

“We couldn’t do our work without the support of the public in Cork. Government funding for pancreatic cancer research is virtually non-existent in Ireland so we depend heavily on public fundraising support to progress all our cancer research and in this case, address the dire situation facing pancreatic cancer patients,” she said.

This weekend, Breakthrough Cancer Research is holding a Women’s Little Christmas Afternoon Tea & Fashion Showcase at the Radisson Hotel & Spa, Little Island, in aid of cancer research at CCRC.

The event was to be hosted by the late Cllr Claire Cullinane, who passed away suddenly at her home in Cobh last month.

Breakthrough Cancer Research communications manager, Jill Lyons, paid tribute to Ms Cullinane, who she said will be greatly missed at the event.

“This year’s Afternoon Tea will be bitter-sweet after the tragic passing of Cllr Claire Cullinane, who was so deeply involved in the event.

“She was such a warm, energetic and bubbly person who was so generous with her time and talents.

“This year, we will reflect on what an amazing supporter she was of our work and many other causes. She will be greatly missed by many.”

The Women’s Little Christmas Afternoon Tea & Fashion Showcase in aid of cancer research at CCRC takes place at noon on Saturday (January 7) at the Radisson Hotel & Spa, Little Island. Tickets cost €40 and include a drinks reception, pampering, craft stalls, best dressed lady competition and goody bags. See www.breakthroughcancerresearch.ie for more.

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