International collaboration: A precision medicine approach to treating metastatic colorectal cancer

  • International
  • Research

RCSI is ranked in the Top 50 in the Times Higher World University 2022 for 'International Outlook'. Our global outlook is underpinned by collaborative partnerships with institutions across the world. Here, RCSI's Prof. Annette Byrne outlines some keys to her success in leveraging largescale European funding and what strong international collaborations mean to her research.

I have been very fortunate to lead several EU programmes so it is hard to pinpoint exactly what the key to that success was but I’d have to say: great collaborative partnerships, grant writing abilities and excellent support from RCSI Office of Research and Innovation.

When I started out I had to be very proactive about emailing people, calling people, but also going out to meet international experts, and I literally mean flying abroad. There's nothing like having a coffee in person with potential collaborators in their hometown. It's not the same as having a phone call. It's not the same as having a Zoom call. It's a much more personal thing which helped to build relationships, friendships and trust with my collaborators.

Then the experience I gained by being on grant panels in Brussels was very important for me to learn how to put a successful application together and to develop the ability to pull the various pieces together for the application. Furthermore, internal support in RCSI and from my team was invaluable.

The benefit of collaboration

Without question the single biggest benefit of this collaboration has been the impact of the research we've been able to do. It has allowed us to collaborate with real leaders in the field across Europe, including institutes like VIB Leuven and INSERM in Paris, which are two of the top research institutes in Europe.

With joint thinking and infrastructure, the scope and impact of the work has been much greater than any solo effort, and as a consequence we have had some high impact publications together that have benefited all researchers and may help to improve cancer patient treatment and care.

From a personal point of view, it helped raise my profile, I had an increasing number of invitations to speak at leading conferences and it allowed me to quite quickly make it to full Professor. I am often asked how I did it, by women colleagues in particular. I knew that my forte was in research so I really wanted to push the boundaries of what I could do. By figuring out what my skill sets were, such as being able to write well, I was able to use that to help me along the way.

Staying on the ball

As coordinator, the buck stops with you and that can be stressful. Coordinating 10-15 institutes, companies, academics, academics in different fields, clinicians and computational experts who all speak a different (scientific or clinical) language or who don’t understand the fundamentals of cancer biology can be difficult.

Some of this involves being tough and sometimes business-like when you need to be. For example it is important that the budget for each partner is well justified and, quite simply, if people aren’t delivering on their side of the collaboration, I won’t invite them to collaborate in the future.

You have to be on the ball all the time, especially when dealing with the European Commission and making sure to report on time. You are also responsible for all the financial aspects, herding the crowd and organising meetings. In short, you really have to deliver. Since the pandemic in particular, it's been a constant barrage of Zoom meetings to keep the team motivated and make sure that all partners are doing what they were funded to do and according to the EC’s strict timelines. 

Read more of Dr Byrne's research on colorectal cancer.

Annette ByrneProfessor Annette Byrne joined RCSI as a lecturer in our Department of Physiology and Medical Physics in 2008.

She works on new treatments for brain and colorectal cancers and has been the successful coordinator on several European consortia including COLOSSUS which focusses on precision medicine systems for patient stratification based solutions in metastatic colorectal cancer.

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