30 Nov 2021

2019 news review: Mother's cancer diagnosis inspired Kildare woman’s groundbreaking research

Groundbreaking research by Castledermot woman Dr Fiona Behan

2019 news review: Mother's cancer diagnosis inspired Kildare woman’s groundbreaking research

Dr Fiona Behan

A Castledermot woman played a leading role in a new project to study the genes essential for the survival of 30 different types of cancer. Its findings, which show where cancers are vulnerable, could lead to targeted cancer treatments which will make a real difference in the lives of patients.

The work of Dr Fiona Behan, and her colleagues at the Cambridge-based Wellcome Sanger Institute, were published in early April in the widely-respected science journal Nature — and has created huge excitement in the world of cancer research.

Dr Behan hails from Abbeylands and is a former student at Coláiste Lorcain. She is the youngest daughter of John and the late Margaret Behan, and has two sisters, Patricia and Maria, and a brother, Peter.

Her mother passed away from cancer last August, a disease which she had for the second time. Back in 2000, Margaret Behan was diagnosed with leukaemia. She beat cancer that time; but the chemotherapy damaged her heart and she was not strong enough to undergo many treatments the second time she faced the disease.

Her mother’s battle with cancer inspired Dr Behan to make fighting the disease her life’s work.

“My initial interest in cancer research was because when I was 17, mam got diagnosed with leukaemia for the first time and the treatment she was given had been the same for the last 30 years. I thought we should be doing better!” she said.

“Now I'm a little more experienced, I realise how difficult the process is, but I’m very excited that the tide is turning in our favour.” According to Dr Behan, one in two people will receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, and only half of those diagnosed will survive a decade.

“It’s really a lottery of which cancer you get, whether you will make it to that 10-year mark. No two patients presenting at the clinic are going to have the same cancer at a molecular level, and as such they will respond to drugs differently. We just don’t understand at a deep enough level the biology underlying most cancers, so to develop good drug targets, we need a better understanding of what’s going on in the cancer cells.”

Dr Behan earned her PhD from Trinity College Dublin in 2011, following an undergraduate degree from UCD. She was also a talented back-row forward for Newbridge Rugby Club’s successful women’s team of that era.

She moved to the UK to spend a year at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge; and worked as a post doctoral fellow at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Cambridge.

She has a background in molecular biology, and an interest in bioinformatics; and is now involved in cutting-edge genetic research into how cancer cells operate.

The project published in Nature, of which Dr Behan is the lead author, essentially took apart 30 different types of cancer, bit-by-bit, to see which of their vulnerabilities could be targeted with new drugs.

Dr Behan and her fellow researchers used a relatively new tool called CRISPR, which can manipulate DNA, to carry out their work. It “knocks out” genes in different cancer cells to identify vulnerabilities which can be exploited.

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