World Cancer Day: UNSW researchers share their vision for a future without cancer

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5 February 2019
Image - World Cancer Day: UNSW researchers share their vision for a future without cancer

Isabelle Dubach

Today is World Cancer Day. The day is an initiative of the Union for International Cancer Control – and this year marks the launch of the ‘I Am and I Will’ campaign, urging everyone to get involved and highlighting the power of individual action taken now to impact the future.

While cancer outcomes have improved enormously over the last 30 years, some cancer types have not been helped as much and the best treatments haven’t reached everyone who can benefit. That is why on this World Cancer Day, UNSW Medicine is reflecting on the gaps that remain in cancer care and how research will help.

UNSW Medicine’s cancer researchers are internationally recognised clinicians, researchers and educators. Their expertise spans the basic sciences, clinical trials, implementation research, public health and health services research – and it aims to benefit people at all stages of their encounter with cancer, from prevention to treatment, palliation and survivorship support.

“We know that cross-disciplinary collaboration is the most effective way to turn scientific discoveries into cures – which is why UNSW Medicine is so well placed to close the gaps that remain,” Professor Michael Barton OAM, Principal of the faculty’s cancer research theme, says.

Professor Michael Barton OAM leads UNSW Medicine’s cancer research theme. As a health service researcher in cancer, his research focuses on assessing the demand for cancer services and therapies on a global scale. 

“The purpose of my research is to get everyone access to the cancer therapies they need – over 1 million lives could be saved globally each year if everyone got the treatment they need, when they need it,” he says.

For him, World Cancer Day is an opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve come in cancer research, but also a chance to look at the gaps that remain.

“For example, developing countries carry 70% of the cancer burden, and survival rates of some cancers have not improved much in the last 30 years,” he says.

“But access to treatment should be equal for all, no matter your background. We should pay equal attention to all types of cancers, and support all people affected by the disease, including the growing group of survivors.”

Associate Professor Phoebe Phillips

Associate Professor Phoebe Phillips is working on improving survival rates for one of the world’s deadliest cancers: pancreatic cancer. Less than 8.7% of diagnosed patients survive beyond five years after diagnosis – and survival rates are still low, even after decades of research. 
A/Prof Phillips has been a pancreatic cancer researcher for 20 years and is investigating new forms of treatment by tackling the disease in a different way. 
“All current therapies have just been targeting the tumour cells and there's a major problem with that. The therapies actually don't penetrate the tumour so they're not very efficient. That’s because the tumour is surrounded by a barrier, or scar tissue. 

“My work is trying to break down the scar tissue first to create a window to increase the penetration of chemotherapeutics and make them more beneficial.”

A/Prof Phillips has also been instrumental in influencing health and medical research policy in Australia over the past 10 years and is a 2019 Eisenhower Fellow.

“I think we need a greater investment in health and medical research, from the government and philanthropists, and working together with the community to really make an impact.

“My long-term goal is to see, in my life-time, pancreatic patients not just live weeks after they've been diagnosed, but years. I think we must make sure that all cancers get the same adequate treatment.”

Professor David Goldstein

Professor David Goldstein is the Director of the Translational Cancer Research Network (TCRN) at UNSW Medicine. 

“I'm a medical oncologist – that is someone who gives chemotherapy, anti-cancer drugs to patients,” he says.

“My particular interest for many years now has been the problem of pancreatic cancer and its resistance to conventional treatments, and trying to identify new ways to treat the disease – both in the clinic and the laboratory,” he says.

Professor Goldstein says there are three areas of potential new treatment pathways. This includes the improvement of conventional treatment as well as targeted therapies that are designed to be more effective by identifying some “chink in the armour” of the tumour, therefore minimising the effect on the rest of the body. 
Professor Goldstein says the third area – the holy grail that has unfortunately not shown much promise for pancreatic cancer just yet – was immunotherapy.

“Immunotherapy is harnessing the immune system and activating it to recognise cancer cells – which it is normally not capable of doing. This is clearly an area of great interest and development. 
“The long-term goal for all cancer clinicians and researchers is to convert cancer from an acute to a chronic disease that people live with rather than die from.”

Dr Mei Ling Yap

Dr Mei Ling Yap is a radiation oncologist and cancer researcher studying inequities in access to cancer treatments both within Australia and globally – in particular, which patients are missing out on radiation therapy for their cancer. 

Travelling to other countries such as Cambodia made Dr Yap realise that we're very lucky to have high-quality care here, but it has also made her examine the inequities within Australia.

“Within Australia, I’ve been looking at socio-demographic factors which may be influencing whether or not patients receive radiation therapy.  These are factors such as gender, income, ancestry and level of education.
“Globally, what I've been investigating is if being from a low- and middle-income country influences whether or not patients are getting access to radiation therapy. What we see is that essentially the poorer the country a patient is from the less chance they have of being able to access potentially life-saving radiation therapy.”

Dr Yap’s vision is clear: “I want to continue striving towards helping all cancer patients across the world to be able to access high quality cancer care including radiation therapy, no matter where they're from, how they identify or their level of income.”

Dr Ben Smith

Dr Ben Smith is the Translational Research Fellow at UNSW Medicine’s Centre for Oncology Education and Research Translation (CONCERT).

“My work is focused on helping people manage the impact of cancer on their quality of life. We focus on a range of programs to help people make better treatment decisions by informing them about their different options. This includes participation in cancer clinical trials, a key part of advancing cancer care,” he says.

“Over the past few decades we've become much better at diagnosing and treating cancer so there are a large number of people living with and beyond cancer now. We need to focus on their needs and how we can help these people enjoy a good quality of life after treatment, because it's a large and growing population.”

He says his focus is on helping everyone affected by cancer:

“We have a microcosm of the global population in south western Sydney so World Cancer Day for me is about trying to help everybody affected by cancer irrespective of what their background is, what language they speak and where they come from.”

Dr Antoinette Anazodo

Dr Antoinette Anazodo is a paediatric and adolescent oncologist focused on survivorship – predominantly researching the reproductive concerns of cancer patients. 

“We know one in 10 paediatric, adolescent and young adult patients of a reproductive age will have a reproductive complication as a result of either the cancer itself or the cancer treatment.

“Fertility preservation is crucial for patients and patients get better outcomes if they are aware and have access prior to cancer treatment. If we can get survivorship care starting before diagnosis, our patients will benefit.”

She says that her dream is that no patient will have reproductive complications after cancer treatment.

“That means we need to work with our biological researchers on new therapies that will prevent some of the effects of cancer treatment on fertility. And we need to work with our scientific colleagues and surgical colleagues trying to improve the fertility options.”

Dr Anazodo was recognised with three awards in late 2018, winning the Rising Star PhD Candidate Award and the Improving Government Services Award at the NSW Premier’s Awards.

“Winning these awards was important because it allowed the team to be acknowledged but also for us in a very personal way: a lot of the funding is given to cure cancer, which is important, and so survivorship gets a very small amount of attention and subsequently a small amount of funding. The awards have brought attention to something that we do.”

To mark World Cancer Day, UNSW Medicine and its partners are running an event seminar at the Ingham Institute of Applied Medical Research to showcase collaboration and research in the area of cancers with poor outcomes. The event – running from 12 – 1:30pm - will be available via live streaming.

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