Professor William Gallagher: Making his Mark in the Fight Against Cancer

Professor William Gallagher

Professor William Gallagher is a cancer researcher at University College Dublin, and also the founder and Chief Scientific Officer of OncoMark, a Dublin based company which
specialises in the development and application of biomarker panels to support the development of cancer drugs.

Professor Gallagher this week received the NovaUCD 2011 Innovation Award from UCD President, Dr. Hugh Brady.

Referring to the award, Professor Gallagher said, “it’s very important because I suppose it is recognition within academia of the translation of research findings into something that’s of economic or societal benefit”.

“If you look at the way research within academia is sometimes criticised, I suppose we’re a bit like an ivory tower in that we just work on things just for our own interest. I’ve never been like that, I always have had an end goal in mind. It has to solve a problem. It has to solve either a commercial problem or a clinical endpoint; it has to be of some use to people.”

Professor Gallagher admits that commercialisation of research has in the past been frowned upon within academia, but thankfully it has, “become more important”, and it is the formation of a company to commercialise the results of his research which he lists as his, “proudest achievement so far”.

That company, OncoMark, currently employs twelve people, a figure which Professor Gallagher hopes to see double in the next year.

The work of OncoMark is in trying to understand and curtail or more accurately treat the spread of tumours in the body.

“What kills 90% of cancer patients is the spreading of this cancer around different parts of the body; for example, the bone, the brain or the lungs; and then damaging those tissues. And so what we’ve been doing for the last 15 years is trying to understand what are the biological factors involved in contributing to that spreading event.

“What we try to do is translate that information into new diagnostic products that can maybe predict this event in patients, and probably more pressingly, can we do something about it, can we actually predict what are the appropriate drugs to give that patient?

“For example, we know that for the average cancer patient it costs about half a million euro to treat a person from start to finish. A lot of times the drugs that they get are pretty ineffective and we just don’t know currently how to put people in different sub-groups so we can give them the most appropriate treatment. So what we try and do is find markers in the actual cancer tissue that we can predict up front what will be the most appropriate kind of treatment or can we predict the outcome of the patient.”

OncoMark has developed, “a variety of different technologies”, but its most recent development is IHC-MARK, a computer vision product.

“We take a standard piece of tissue that a pathologist would look at down a microscope slide and we digitise that using a scanning system and then we’ve developed computational tools and image analysis tools that can automatically analyse that tissue and determine the levels of an particular marker of interest so that can predict an appropriate drug response.”

OncoMark is in the “latter stages of licensing the technology”, which was developed within UCD, and Professor Gallagher is confident that he and his team have, “created something that will hopefully be a commercial success over time”, and can join the ranks of previous winners of the NovaUCD Innovation award who, he says, have been, “key innovators within the university”.

“They’ve spun out technology, they’ve grown companies to a large size, and created employment for individuals, so I suppose within this kind of context I’m happy that I’ve been recognised as being part of that group of individuals.”

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