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18 May 2011

Winning the fight against cancer

As cancer rates soar worldwide, a major new Australian cancer research centre at the University of New South Wale in Sydney is aiming to cure childhood cancer and help adult cancer sufferers lead long and productive lives.

The new Lowy Cancer Research Centre (LCRC) was opened in May by the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. Its 400 scientists are hoping to make the “leaps forward” in research needed to improve survival rates and quality of life by turning cancer into a manageable disease.

“The Lowy Cancer Research Centre is a critical step in supporting our world-leading cancer researchers, whose discoveries will directly translate into better patient care and carry the potential to save generations from cancer,” the Australian Prime Minister said.

The LCRC brings together leading Australian and international medical scientists in a $127 million dollar, purpose built facility. As a joint venture between UNSW’s Faculty of Medicine and the national leader in childhood cancer research, the Children’s Cancer Institute Australia for Medical Research (CCIA), it will reap the research benefits of combining leading adult and childhood cancer researchers in a collaborative environment.
Global trends suggest cancer will soon overtake heart disease as the leading cause of death. The 2008 World Cancer Report projected cancer rates will more than double worldwide by 2030, with over 26 million new diagnoses a year, many of which will be in Asia. Cancer currently kills one in three Australians, with 114,000 patients -- including 600 children – diagnosed every year.

Inaugural Lowy Cancer Research Centre Director, Professor Phillip Hogg, says: "Over the next 10-20 years I believe we can turn cancer into a manageable disease like diabetes; which is serious but can be managed on a lifelong basis.

“Whether we will actually find a cure, I don't know, but realistically we can expect to get to a point where cancer sufferers can lead long and productive lives."
Of all cancers, only 1 percent strike children. However, in terms of the potential years of life lost and the emotional toll on families the loss of a child to cancer is devastating. Over the past 50 years extraordinary progress has been made in childhood cancer; a diagnosis was once a death sentence, now more than 70 per cent of children with access to the best treatment survive.
Executive Director of the CCIA, Professor Michelle Haber, believes further significant progress is realistic and that the vision of "curing 100 per cent of children with cancer" will be greatly advanced by the scientific collaboration and state of the art facilities of the LCRC.

Globally, scientists have been making steady progress with cancer survival rates increasing in Australia, for example, by 30 per cent over the past two decades and over 60 per cent of Australian cancer patients now living more than five years after diagnosis. But, there is a long way to go, especially as the numbers of new diagnoses rise
The next "leaps forward" anticipated at the LCRC will be achieved by re-configuring teams to build a collaborative critical mass of researchers, by bringing together adult and child cancer specialists for the first time and through the provision of the cutting-edge equipment and facilities. Research will also cover the entire spectrum, from the basic science of the disease to clinical trials of new treatments, drugs and diagnostic tools. This vital "bench to the bedside" chain will allow breakthrough therapies to be developed locally and will benefit from the LCRC’s location within one of Sydney’s “medical precincts” of three major teaching hospitals.
LCRC Director, Professor Hogg, has already been able to move clinical trials of one of his new cancer fighting drugs back to Australia from the UK. Professor Hogg, NSW Cancer Researcher of the Year 2009, is using novel mitochondrial toxins to "starve" tumours to death by cutting of their blood supply. A first generation drug compound is being used to treat cancer in the UK. Trials of an even more promising second-generation compound begin in Sydney this year, following the opening of the LCRC.

Ultimately, the future of cancer treatment lies in personalised medicine. Not only will genetic inheritance factors be measured, but the specific tags on malfunctioning genes will be identified to determine a patient's personal genome risk factors. Researchers are seeking to map the genetic markers associated with cancer, enabling treatment to be tailored to a patient's unique genetic make-up. If this can be achieved, much safer and more effective cancer treatments will be realised, enabling patients to avoid the toxicity and side effects of chemotherapy.
For example, work pioneered by UNSW’s Professor Robyn Ward, has made extraordinary progress in uncovering an entirely new pattern of disease inheritance through the identification of a chemical marker, or genetic tag, with implications for people with a family history of bowel, ovarian or uterine cancer.
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