On February 28th, in the New York Irish Center, an event took place which shone a welcome spotlight on one of the largely unheralded successes of The Good Friday Agreement.  

As we mark its 25th Anniversary this year, we are all both aware and extremely thankful for what the Good Friday Agreement has achieved for peace and reconciliation in both Ireland and Northern Ireland.

But what has been less recognized to date has been the crucial role that the Agreement has played in supporting cancer research and its translation to enhanced cancer care on the island of Ireland and the pivotal influence that the United States has played in this success.  

On Sunday 3rd October 1999, pursuant to the Good Friday Agreement, a partnership was historically signed at Government Buildings in Stormont between the Departments of Health for Ireland and  Northern Ireland and the world–renowned US National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, USA, giving rise to the Ireland - Northern Ireland - National Cancer Institute Cancer Consortium.  

The Cancer Consortium articulated its ambitious aim: ‘to reduce cancer incidence and mortality on the island of Ireland through cross-border and transatlantic collaborations in cancer research and education.” 

So what has the Consortium achieved in the last quarter of a century? Thankfully, a lot.

Quite frankly, the initiative has been transformative for cancer researchers – it has led to a doubling of collaborative cancer research on the island, and it has precipitated a remarkable increase in the quality of that research, such that it is published in the best quality scientific journals, it gave rise to an all-island Cancer Atlas, published together by the cancer registries in Ireland and Northern Ireland and it paved the way for a number of significant partnerships with premier US cancer institutions.

Crucially, it has also had a significant impact from a health perspective - over 35,000 cancer patients were enrolled in clinical trials during the period, helping to save thousands of lives.

Meanwhile, over 500 healthcare professionals and scientists were trained at the US National Cancer Institute, many returning to supercharge cancer research and its translation to better patient care on the island of Ireland.

NCI’s former Clinical Director Doctor Bill Dahut hit the nail on the head when he said “Ireland and Northern Ireland together are now firmly embedded on the global cancer research map.”  

The Consortium’s success led to the re-signing of the agreement on Tuesday 16th March 2021 by Stephen Donnelly TD, Minister for Health for Ireland, Robin Swann MLA, Minister for Health for Northern Ireland at the time and NCI Director at the time Doctor Norman Sharpless.

A particular highlight was when then newly-elected President Joe Biden emphasized his personal commitment to supporting this ground-breaking initiative between Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the US in his opening remarks at his virtual meeting with An Taoiseach on St Patricks Day 2021.  

Highlighting the global recognition of what the Consortium had achieved, The Economist, on the opening day of its prestigious World Series Conference, dedicated a special session to the remarkable impact of the Cancer Consortium and its activities.

One of us (ML) was honored to share the virtual stage with Doctor Norman (Ned) Sharpless, Director of the US NCI at the time, as we highlighted the success of the initiative in delivering high-quality research and better care for citizens on the island of Ireland and it is held up as a blueprint for collaborative cancer initiatives across the globe.

So what about the next 25 years? We firmly believe that we have an unprecedented opportunity to do something really special and that it is our duty to deliver, not only for the people living on the island of Ireland but also for cancer patients everywhere.

The re-signing of the Consortium agreement is significant, as is President Biden’s reaffirmation of the US Cancer Moonshot in his recent State of the Union address, with its ambitious aim to end cancer as we know it.

Back on the island of Ireland, a significant development has been the Higher Education Authority North-South Research Programme, supported through the Shared Island Fund in the Office of An Taoiseach.

The initial funding has been secured by us for an All Island Cancer Research Institute (AICRI), an ambitious initiative that we have been working on together for the last 3-4 years. AICRI is a collaborative partnership involving 10 universities working together on the island of Ireland, an unprecedented collaboration between the academic institutions North and South.  

AICRI is very much a grassroots movement, bringing together scientists, clinicians and allied health professionals and most importantly patients, fuelled by a unity of purpose to deploy our research excellence to address the significant challenges that cancer presents to us as a society. 

Ireland and Northern Ireland now punch above their collective weight in cancer research. Wouldn’t it be great to bring together the best minds on the island of Ireland, working together to address one of human health’s greatest challenges?

Given the size of the prize, working in isolation is unthinkable. Working together we can be better than the sum of our parts. But working together and in close cooperation with our prestigious US partner in a trans-Atlantic collaboration, we can be quite simply unbeatable. Yes, we do need to compete, but not against each other, but rather against what is our common enemy… cancer. 

*Professor Mark Lawler is Associate Pro Vice Chancellor, Professor of Digital Health and Chair in Translational Cancer Genomics at Queen’s University Belfast and co-lead of the All Island Cancer Research Institute (AICRI). He has been prominent in advocating for an all-island approach to cancer research and care and played a leading role in the reinvigoration and re-signing of the Cancer Consortium agreement

Professor William (Liam) Gallagher is a Full Professor of Cancer Biology at UCD’s School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science, Deputy Director of Precision Oncology Ireland and co-lead of the All Island Cancer Research Institute (AICRI). He was the recipient of Science Foundation Ireland’s 2021 Researcher of the Year Award in honour of his many outstanding achievements in the field of cancer research. 

Professors Lawler and Gallagher outlined their ambitious vision to address one of human health’s greatest challenges at a special event entitled “US Influence on the Good Friday Agreement -- Cancer Research Across Borders”  which took place in the New York Irish Centre on Tuesday 28th February.