Cancer Survival on the Increase

Wednesday 2 February 2022

Saving Lives Through Inspired RBWH Cancer Research

A diagnosis of cancer can be extremely overwhelming, but the latest five-year cancer survival rates should provide comfort to Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH) Cancer Care patients and their families. National statistics show an increase from 51% in 1988 to 70% in 2017*, a reflection of the dedication and commitment of researchers, including those at RBWH.

RBWH Cancer Care Service is the largest unit in Queensland, home to the largest Bone Marrow Transplant program in Australia and offering the only public Adolescent and Young Adult cancer centre.

Key to success is the integration of research into daily clinical care.

“As a clinician working within a thriving research culture, you are always thinking about what other opportunities you can offer individual patients if they don’t respond as expected,” said RBWH Executive Director of RBWH Cancer Care Services, Associate Professor Glen Kennedy.

One of the best methods of building a research culture, said A/Prof Kennedy, was through the support of investigator-led local research as offered by RBWH Foundation-funded research project grants and fellowships.

“Not only do we improve the knowledge, experience, understanding of our local team; we build on the research to obtain more funding, our non-research teams gain a more broad understanding of research and trials, and we also attract different patient groups because of the work we’re doing.”

RBWH national impact includes:

  • One of only three adult services in Australia – and the only one in Queensland – offering CAR-T cell therapy (a gene modified cellular therapy) to patients with blood cancers
  • Treatment in medical oncology, haematology, haemophilia, and radiation oncology
  • Members of the Division are lead or senior authors on papers in top international journals including Blood, Leukaemia, Nature Communications and contributed to papers in internationally renowned journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, Immunity, Journal of Clinical Oncology, Blood, Lancet Oncology, and many others.

World-standard care is provided to patients who arrive from all over Queensland, Northern New South Wales, Northern Territory, and parts of the Pacific Rim.


Cancer Care Research Sub-specialities

CAR-T cell Therapy

Chimeric Antigen Receptor T cell (CAR-T cell) therapy is a new generation of cancer treatment that modifies a patient’s immune cells (T cells) to treat cancer. RBWH is one of only three adult services in Australia, and the only service in Queensland, offering the treatment.

“CAR-T cell therapy is the way of the future. It will save more lives, it will save families,” said Queensland CAR-T cell patient Simon Tuma.

“Twelve months later, I’ve my life back,” said Simon. “I’ve got my wife; my beautiful daughter and it would not have happened if not for CAR-T. I wouldn’t be here; I would have been buried by now.”

During therapy, a patient’s T cells are extracted from the body, genetically reprogrammed to recognise, and destroy cancer cells, and then infused back into the patient’s bloodstream. CAR-T requires the manufacture of a dedicated CAR-T cell product for each patient.

Currently, CAR-T cells can be used for treatment of B-cell cancers, either leukaemia or lymphoma, where all standard available treatment options have been exhausted.

Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancers include cancers in the larynx (voice box), throat, lips, mouth, nose, and salivary glands. They often present in quite an advanced stage and treatment is complex and often difficult to bear.

One cause, on the increase, is human papilloma virus. Most people have had HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) infections in their mouth but clear the infection without ever really knowing it was there. Those with persisting infections can develop cancers, usually in the tonsils or the base of the tongue.

RBWH Head and Neck Cancer team, headed by Dr Elizabeth Kenny, is developing a screening test using saliva to try and detect these cancers early to improve cancer survival. It has aptly been named the SPIT trial.

Prostate Cancer

Prostate cancer is the most common malignancy diagnosed in Australian men and causes about 3500 deaths every year.

The RBWH Prostate Cancer Precision Medicine program, led by Queensland’s pioneer of urology research, Emeritus Professor RA (‘Frank’) Gardiner AM, is working on new diagnostics and treatment paradigms to bring new hope for prostate cancer patients.

Among key projects are the reduction of unnecessary biopsies or radiation treatment, a new biopsy tool to reduce the wait time for a cancer diagnosis, and a therapeutic vaccine for all prostate cancer patients that may eventually be tailored specifically to each individual patient’s tumour using their own immune system.

Adolescent and Young Adults

About three Queenslanders aged 15 to 24 years old are diagnosed with cancer every week, with around 140 of those being treated at the RBWH each year.

In 2019, in partnership with the Sony Foundation, the hospital opened the Sony You Can Centre, a dedicated space to provide youth aged 15-25 with a social haven away from hospital wards, where they can relax with friends and family. The centre features a range of facilities including indoor and outdoor lounge areas, study nooks and a yoga studio.

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