University of College Cork-National University of Ireland
Professor, Department of Oncology
Director and Professor Gerald O’Sullivan Chair, Cancer Research
Adjunct Associate Professor of Medical Oncology, Johns Hopkins University
Investigating new and innovative biomarkers to support more individualized treatment plans for triple-negative breast cancer patients.
Proteins known as “immune checkpoints” are key players in preventing the immune system from attacking cells indiscriminately. Some cancers can evade an immune response by simulating these proteins, which in turn, decreases anti-tumor immunity. Immunotherapy agents can block these immune checkpoint proteins and demonstrate impressive tumor shrinkage and long-term survival in some patients with select cancers such as advanced triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). More recent clinical trials have demonstrated the value of adding an immune checkpoint inhibitor pembrolizumab to chemotherapy in early-stage TNBC and led to this combination as standard of care for these patients. Dr. Connolly is focused on identifying biomarkers that can help determine which patients would benefit from this combination treatment, ensuring a more personalized approach for treatment, minimizing treatment-related side effects while maintaining efficacy.
To undertake this project, Dr. Connolly and her team have formed a new collaborative cancer team in University College Cork (Ireland) comprised of laboratory and clinical scientists, postdoctoral researchers, research nursing, and pathology experts and has established new collaborations across the Irish scientific research community. The team’s clinical trial protocol is in the review process, and they are poised to begin this important work to personalize treatment for TNBC.
Dr. Connolly and her colleagues will finalize the design of the new clinical trial and begin accruing participants. The team will utilize a stepwise approach to identify promising biomarkers in blood samples and tumor biopsies from patients who have received chemotherapy with or without immunotherapy. They will focus on biomarkers related to the tissue environment surrounding tumors and the breast cancer “microbiome”—the bacterial composition of breast cancers. Assessment of microbiome biomarkers is a novel approach and Dr. Connolly hopes these studies will identify a unique way to define which TNBCs will respond to the chemotherapy and immunotherapy regimen.
Roisin Connolly, MD is the Professor Gerald O’Sullivan Chair in Cancer Research at University of College Cork (UCC) and Cork University Hospital (CUH). She is also the Director of Cancer Research at UCC, a Principal Investigator with Cancer Trials Cork at CUH, and assumed the role of Co-Chair of the Cancer Trials Ireland Breast Disease Specific Group in 2020. Prior to this, she was an associate professor of Oncology (Women’s Malignancy Program) from 2011, and Co-Director of the Developmental Therapeutics Program at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Connolly graduated with a “first-class honors” medical degree from Trinity College, Dublin in 2001 and completed medical oncology fellowship training in both Ireland and at Johns Hopkins.
As a medical oncologist and clinical investigator, Dr. Connolly has significant expertise in the development of biomarkers of response to anti-cancer therapies, and the design and conduct of clinical trials that test investigational new drugs in the treatment of patients with both early- and late-stage cancers. In fact, she has led numerous multicenter clinical trials in collaboration with the Cancer Therapy Evaluation Program (CTEP) at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the Translational Breast Cancer Research Consortium (TBCRC), and the Eastern Co-operative Oncology Group (ECOG-ACRIN) in the U.S. Dr. Connolly is Study Chair for the international phase III ECOG-ACRIN study and received the prestigious ECOG-ACRIN Young Investigator Award in 2019 for excellence in clinical investigation. She has also recently received an Irish Cancer Society grant to support a Women’s Cancer Survivorship Clinic in Cork, in collaboration with national and international teams.
Dr. Connolly has been awarded a Health Research Board grant to support the UCC Cancer Trials Group, a network of clinical trials units in the South of Ireland. Through this funding, she will lead the expansion and availability of innovative clinical trials and investigator-led clinical projects to reach patients in this region. In addition, this award will focus on training the next generation of cancer researchers and research staff. In 2022, she received dedicated funding for clinical research fellowships from Breakthrough Cancer Research.
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