Researcher in Focus - Prof William Watson

With Movember taking place this month, our Researcher in Focus is an Irish scientist whose research focusses primarily on male cancers.

Prof. William Watson, BSc PhD, is Full Professor of Cancer Biology and Head of Pathology at the School of Medicine, University College Dublin. He received his PhD following research conducted in a collaboration between scientists and surgeons in Maynooth University and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. He recognised at an early stage in his career the importance of translating scientific knowledge and multidisciplinary collaborative research, so undertook a post-doctoral fellowship in Toronto General Hospital before returning to Ireland as a lecturer in the Department of Surgery, Mater Misericordiae University Hospital and then to the Conway Institute of Biomolecular and Biomedical Research in University College Dublin.

He was a founding member of the Prostate Cancer Research Consortium and led the group following a third successful grant application to the Irish Cancer Society. The Prostate Cancer Research Consortium brought together scientists and clinicians from different academic centres and disciplines with complementary skills providing an excellent environment to tackle important clinical questions in relation to the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of prostate cancer as well as providing a teaching and mentoring environment that would encourage young scientists and clinicians to flourish thus building a critical mass of prostate cancer researchers in Ireland. This group has now expanded to the National Prostate Cancer research group as part of Clinical Research Development Ireland and Cancer Trials Ireland (where he is the translational co-chair of the Gastro urinary disease specific group). A central achievement of the consortium was the establishment of the Prostate Cancer Research Consortium Bioresource which has resulted in the recruitment of almost 1000 men undergoing a radical prostatectomy and collection of their blood, urine and tissue which has become an important part of the group's and Professor Watson’s research.

Using this resource his group focuses on the discovery and validation of serum and tissue biomarkers to inform clinical decisions. His current work, funded by the Health Research Board and Enterprise Ireland involves building a novel tool which will help patients and clinicians determine the need for a biopsy for the diagnosis of prostate cancer. It involves a collaboration with the Urologists in the rapid access clinics of the National Cancer Control Programme and industry partners. Once diagnosed the next question under investigation is if the disease is slow-growing or aggressive which will inform the most appropriate treatment. This work led to a recent publication in Molecular Oncology* by the members of the Prostate Cancer Research Consortium which was funded by the Irish Cancer Society. This paper demonstrated that when you combine DNA, RNA, Protein and Glycosylated biomarkers measured in blood and tumour tissue you can determine with a very high accuracy, performing better than the current clinical tests available, which patients have indolent and aggressive disease. The approach they undertook also resulted in a novel statistical way to work this out which could be applied to other cancers and diseases.

Professor Watson’s current research has developed a blood test differentiating between slow-growing and aggressive disease which is being validated in independent international cohorts of patients funded by the Science Foundation Ireland. International collaborations are centrally important in progressing this research. Professor Watson is a member of the ToPCaP group and Movembers Global Action Plan biomarker programme which has facilitated collaborations to progress this work and that of the national Prostate Cancer group.

Working closely with clinicians and facilitating the research and careers of young researchers are motivating factors for Professor Watson.

*Murphy K, Murphy BT, Boyce S, Flynn L, Gilgunn S, O'Rourke CJ, Rooney C, Stöckmann H, Walsh AL, Finn S, O'Kennedy RJ, O'Leary J, Pennington SR, Perry AS, Rudd PM, Saldova R, Sheils O, Shields DC, Watson RW. Integrating biomarkers across omic platforms: an approach to improve stratification of patients with indolent and aggressive prostate cancer. Mol Oncol. 2018 Sep;12(9):1513-1525. doi: 10.1002/1878-0261.12348. Epub 2018 Aug 7.PMID: 29927052