UCD researcher inspired by childhood cancer wish honoured with major award

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A UCD student whose pioneering cancer research was inspired by her work with critically ill children has been honoured with a major award.

Originally from Portugal but now living in Booterstown, Romina Silva had been involved with her native country’s version of the ‘Make a Wish Foundation’ while in secondary school, an experience that set her on a path to search for cures for the disease.

Her ground-breaking efforts into pinpointing the most effective treatments for patients of ovarian and prostate cancers were on Wednesday recognised at the Irish Cancer Society’s annual Research Awards showcase, where she was named PhD Researcher of the Year for 2021.

Silva said: “I have known I wanted to work in cancer research since I was a teenager, when I had the opportunity of helping fulfil the dream of a little boy with leukaemia who wanted to see snow for the first time. It wasn’t until my first year of college that I received an email telling me that he had passed away. I knew then that if there was anything at all I could do to help anyone overcome cancer, I would do it.”

A combined total of around 4,000 people are diagnosed with prostate and ovarian cancers each year in Ireland, with post-diagnosis survival rates after five years ranging from 90% for those with prostate cancer to as low as 40% for ovarian cancer patients.

Treatment for these conditions can often be gruelling with positive outcomes not guaranteed. However the award-winning project developed by Silva uses traces of unique DNA left in the blood by tumours to identify what drugs will have the greatest hope of success for patients while otherwise impacting their health the least.

“It feels incredible to win this award. The research that we do in the lab every day has ups and downs so we need to be doing it for a really good reason, and in my case it’s to help patients,” said Silva, who hopes that her research can one day contribute towards the development of new and more effective therapies for ovarian and prostate cancers.

“The patients that get no benefit from chemotherapy, there’s really no point in them suffering through those treatments if it’s not going to give them a good outcome, so through this project we’re trying to help them the best we can,” she added.

Fellow UCD-based researcher Dr Arman Rahman received the title of Senior Researcher of the Year at Wednesday’s awards show for his role in the development of an innovative new tissue imaging platform, while Dr Despina Bazou from the Mater Univeristy Hospital took the honours in the Research Support Staff of the Year category for her work related to multiple myeloma, a blood-based cancer.

Irish Cancer Society Director of Research Dr Robert O’Connor said: “Our country is blessed to have so many passionate and talented researchers building on the rich heritage of life-improving cancer research in this country.

“Covid-19 has caused enormous challenges but the 2021 Irish Cancer Society Research Awards show how, with continued support from the public, we are still able to sustain and foster world-class research. In these dark days of the pandemic, we cannot and will not lose focus on the hope of improving cancer outcomes through research.”

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