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Double celebration for Lancashire Teaching Hospitals consultant


Dr Pierre Martin-Hirsch, Director of Research and Innovation and Consultant Gynaecological Oncologist at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals, is celebrating remarkable success on two fronts.

In collaboration with the International Agency of Research Against Cancer (IARC), a specialised agency of the World Health Organisation, Dr Martin-Hirsch, along with fellow local specialist Professor Ihtesham Rehman from UCLan, has secured a multi-million dollar grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the USA to fund their research into early diagnosis of womb, cervical  and lung cancer.

The grant means a great deal to Dr Martin-Hirsch, for whom research is his “hobby”, and he explained the importance of the US NIH grant. 

The grant, given over five years, is a prestigious merit award, based around developing biospectroscopy to detect high-risk Human Papilloma Virus in urine as an inexpensive screening tool for preventing cervical cancer in low-income countries.

Bio-spectroscopy relies on high energy light being scattered or absorbed by the components of fluids or tissue, and the differences in the reflected light can tell differences in structure. Hence, you can tell the difference between diseased and normal tissue as the wavelengths of reflected light will change.

Dr Martin-Hirsch said: “This could be a game-changer for us, and that’s why the NIH have invested into it. “We are looking at early diagnosis of womb, cervical and lung cancer, and this big grant will give us momentum and allow us to run a trial in a low income country, ascertain the accuracy of the technique, refine the processes to improve accuracy and develop low-cost robust mobile equipment that can be used as a point of care test.

“I’ve been out to India a couple of times and Africa once, and the big thing with third-world screening is you need a cheap test, and you need the results straightaway. In the villages, people go for tests, and if they don’t get the results for three or four days, they don’t come back for treatment.

“If you can give them the results there and then, and treat them, that is the beauty.”

In 2020, an estimated 604,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer worldwide, and about 342,000 women died from the disease. The main cause of cervical cancer is persistent infection with high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV), an extremely common family of viruses that are transmitted through sexual contact.

Vaccines exist that protect against high-risk HPV types, and screening programmes can detect signs of disease at an early stage, allowing for effective treatment and management of the condition. This means that cervical cancer should be one of the most preventable and treatable forms of cancer.

In many high-income countries, this is the case. High incidence rates and high mortality rates of cervical cancer occur mainly (~90% for both) in low- and middle-income countries.

Dr Martin-Hirsch added: “Cervical cancer remains one of the leading causes of death in women in countries where there are no screening programmes. This consolidates a 15-year programme of research around developing biospectroscopy as an early diagnostic tool at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals by myself and UCLan. We have established a translational research centre this year to develop the technique across many other cancers – we’ve been looking at womb cancer, oesophagus cancer, bowel cancer, brain cancer, but this grant puts it in a different league.”

And there is scope to earn more funding - the NIH MERIT (Method To Extend Research in Time) awards programme, created in 1986, was designed to give productive and creative scientists long-term support to investigators whose research skills and productivity are "distinctly superior" and “are deemed highly likely to continue to perform in an outstanding manner.”

Professor Ihtesham Rehman, Head of Translational Research, Professor of Biomaterials and Regenerative Medicine from UCLan, added: “I’m delighted to be working with Dr Martin-Hirsch. Ultimately, our mission is to save millions of lives and improve the delivery of medical care, both in the NHS and across the world. Using this NIH funding, we’re going to be able to harness innovative new technologies, specially focusing on early diagnosis and monitoring of womb, cervical and lung cancer.

“That’s why we’re establishing the Interdisciplinary Research Centre for Translational Research at UCLan, which will act as a hub for Translational Research. This is really vital, as collaboration is the key to success when it comes to making improvements to healthcare. Bringing together university and clinical researchers, through the local partnership of UCLan and Lancashire Teaching Hospitals, and then collaborating with the IARC and the WHO – well, it’s a fantastic opportunity on both a local and global scale to make some real changes for the better in patient treatment and care.”

The MERIT award provides funding for five years, and recipients are afforded a simplified renewal for a second five-year period – as long as they meet certain criteria showing that their research has yielded results.

If the research grant was not sufficient recognition of his work, Dr Martin-Hirsch has also won the prestigious 2022 Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ annual academic award, following a rigorous review of all applications by a panel of experts.

Following his award, he said: “I gave an overview in a lecture at the college of all the research I had done in the 20 years I’ve been a consultant at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals, and the award was for a significant contribution over a sustained period of time in academia. It’s very prestigious, and it was great to be stood at the podium with Lancashire Teaching Hospitals, Rosemere and UCLan’s logos prominent next to me. To have that recognition from my peers means a lot.” 

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