Strap yourselves in, team, you’re about to get a crash course in cancer research.
There’s still so, so much we don’t know about cancer – which is admittedly daunting as all holy heck – so we spoke to Dr Wayne Ng, General Manager of Victorian Cancer Biobank, to get their insight into what the future holds for the seemingly indestructible disease.
It’s quite the hefty dose of knowledge so let’s keep the intro short and dive right in, shall we?
P.TV: What role does Australia play in cancer research? Could a cure come from our own backyard?
DWN: Cancer Council Victoria has developed an international reputation for our innovative work in cancer research, prevention, and support. As an independent, not-for-profit organisation, we play a leading role in reducing the impact of all cancers.
In 2020, we spent $23.7 million in funding researchers working in hospitals, universities, and medical institutions across Victoria.
Cancer Council Victoria also funds our own researchers here, particularly at our Centre for Behavioural Science in Cancer and Cancer Epidemiology Division, who work on finding out more about the causes of cancer and its prevention.
We are also supporting much life-saving research through Victorian Cancer Biobank, a program that collects and distributes tissue and blood specimens from cancer patients in the hope of enabling researchers to understand the disease better.
What new technologies have been developed in the last year?
DWN: Most new technologies in cancer research take years to develop and improve.
Each year, Cancer Council Victoria spends about $20 million on cancer research. Specifically, we fund the Australian Breakthrough Cancer (ABC) Study, a study working with over 51,000 Australians to investigate the causes of common non-communicable diseases, particularly cancer.
Using the latest technologies, such as advanced genetic mapping techniques, the ABC Study is measuring each participant’s genetic profile and investigating the role that our genes, lifestyle and environment play in the development of cancer and other diseases.
The Victorian Cancer Biobank has provided high-quality tissue and blood specimens from cancer patients that help researchers understand the disease better. Our practices have helped develop a simple blood test kit for the early detection of colorectal cancer.
Our work has also allowed researchers to develop a test for the early detection and monitoring of ovarian and breast cancer by detecting sugar, called Neu5Gc, that has been found in multiple tumours.
More broadly, we’re aiming to reduce the devastating impact of cancer on people and communities through leadership, collaboration, and by developing and applying evidence and insights. We do this by changing the environment to enable healthier behaviours via powerful prevention policies and programs.
We’re currently increasing participation equitably in cancer screening, early detection, and HPV immunisation programs, and we’re always advocating for early detection initiatives such as BreastScreen and the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.
We’ve also partnered with the best research teams in the country and fund ground-breaking clinical trials that play a critical role in answering questions about the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer, as well as improving psychological, supportive, and palliative care outcomes.
Realistically, how far off curing cancer do you think we are?
DWN: As there are over 200 types of cancer with various complexities, there is no single cure and no single timeframe that we can predict.
Cancer research requires decades of consistent work and funding. Our research has led to many significant improvements in early detection, as well as more effective and targeted treatments such as the early detection and monitoring of ovarian and breast cancer by detecting sugar in tumours.
It’s estimated that one-third of cancers are preventable through “simple risk factors”, which are behaviours that people can control, such as quitting smoking, healthy eating, exercise and lowering alcohol consumption – all can contribute to a lower cancer risk.
Cancer research public education around how people can reduce their personal risk have contributed to the survival rate for many common cancers increasing by more than 30% in the last 20 years.
A great example of this multifaceted approach to tackling cancer is the fact that it’s predicted we’ll effectively eliminate cervical cancer in Australia by 2035. This amazing achievement is built on decades of work that started in the 1980s when the human papillomavirus (HPV) was first discovered to be a cause of cervical cancer.
From there, Cancer Council research grants have enabled the development of an HPV vaccine. This national HPV vaccination program, coupled with the National Cervical Screening Program introduced in 1991, has halved the number of diagnoses and deaths from cervical cancer.
Progress is being made, and while survival rates and outcomes have improved, as the population ages in Australia, we know that cancer diagnoses are going to increase over the coming decades.
Immunisation and screening rates are the lowest in some priority communities. This means that there is a real risk for cervical cancer to be a disease of the disadvantaged.
Women and people with a cervix from priority communities face a range of barriers to accessing screening, immunisation, and timely treatment. We have now started tackling breaking down these barriers in Victoria.
A concerted and strategic effort is required to further increase Victoria’s immunisation, screening, and treatment rates in order to fast-track reaching the elimination target by 2035, and to do it in an equitable way.
There is still a lot more work to do and we’re committed to helping Victorians and Australians reduce their risk through prevention and education programs, and funding research into early detection and better treatments.
What does the future of trying to cure cancer in Australia look like in the next few years?
DWN: Cancer Council Victoria will continue to be a worldwide leader in cancer, research, prevention, and support for decades to come.
Through our National Cervical Screening Program, we’re close to eliminating cervical cancer. Our Cancer Epidemiology Division also helps to identify what causes cancer and our Centre for Behavioural Science in Cancer researchers work out how to stop cancer before it starts. We also have a focus on forgotten cancers, such as bladder, bone, and thyroid cancers, which the public always like to hear about.
Prevention is better than a cure. We can have the greatest impact by stopping cancer before it starts or finding it early to save thousands of lives.
One of our prevention programs, SunSmart, is estimated to have prevented more than 43,000 skin cancers and 1,400 deaths from the disease in Victoria between 1988 and 2011. We’re seeing encouraging signs that this will improve.
The Victorian Cancer Biobank will continue to collect valuable tissue and blood specimens from cancer patients across the major hospitals in Victoria with a focus on low survival cancers, such as lung cancer, making them readily available to expedite any upcoming ground-breaking research.
In many ways, we’re enabling cancer researchers around the country to make more ground-breaking discoveries than ever before. I’m quite optimistic that cancer outcomes will continue to improve just like how they have done in the past.
How can Aussies help cancer research/funding?
DWN: There are lots of ways Australians can get involved to help tackle cancer. People can of course donate directly, either a one-off or a monthly gift.
We also have plenty of options to fundraise, with choices to suit all types of interests.
Volunteering your time is also another great way to help a good cause, meet new people, and gain skills.
Donating your tissue and blood specimens to research where appropriate is also an alternative way to contribute to the cancer research as they are instrumental for researchers to understand the disease better.
How do donations from charities like the Cancer Council help people with cancer?
DWN: Every dollar you donate contributes to our mission to prevent cancer, empower patients, and save lives. In 2020, Cancer Council Victoria spent 75% of expenditure on cancer research, prevention programs, and support services. We work across all cancers for all people.
We’ve spent $23.7 million on cancer research: We fund researchers working in hospitals, universities, and medical institutions across Victoria. We also fund our own researchers here at Cancer Council Victoria, including behavioural scientists and epidemiologists who work at finding out more about the causes of cancer and its prevention.
We’ve spent $18.6 million on cancer prevention: We have several programs, such as Quit Victoria, SunSmart, LiveLighter, Rethink Sugary Drink and screening programs that educate the community about how they can cut their cancer risk by eating a healthy diet, being physically active, limiting alcohol, not smoking, being a healthy weight, and getting checked for cancers such as bowel and melanoma. We also sell sun protection items through our retail outlet.
We’ve spent $5.6 million on providing reliable information and support to people living with cancer and those around them and advocate for policies and programs that improve the health and wellbeing of all.
Our cancer support services include Cancer Council 13 11 20, which helped about 10,000 people affected by cancer connect with a qualified cancer nurse to get information on cancer types and treatments, or to be referred to other support services last year. We also house the McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, which helps develop policy to use the law effectively for the prevention and control of cancer.
In total, we’ve spent $47.9 million on cancer research, prevention, and support services in 2020 – equalling 75% of our total expenditure for the year.