As we approach the end of 2021 there is much to reflect upon. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said we can only understand our life by looking backwards, but we must live it looking forwards.
In some ways, the monumental loss of normalcy encountered this year gave those of us working in health and medical research even greater insight into the effects of the stress and strong emotions that are commonly felt by those who experience a cancer diagnosis.
Perhaps a new sense of hope and connection will help us to reimagine a future for patients where research evidence can be accelerated into practice, inequities can be overcome, and we can continue to redesign our systems and processes to be more effective.
Critical mass for cancer with poorer outcomes
One of the VCCC Alliance’s key goals is to see improvements in pancreatic, lung, and brain cancers: amongst the most devastating of all cancers as they have the poorest outcomes. It is important to recognise that while 30 per cent of all cancers diagnosed are classified as rare or less common cancers, they are responsible for 42 per cent of all cancer deaths.
Despite challenges on all fronts this year, we saw significant new initiatives and critical collaborations achieved through the development of the Australian Brain Cancer Research Alliance (ABCARA) thanks to the efforts of Professor Hui Gan from Austin Health and national colleagues.
The opening of The Brain Cancer Centre at WEHI, will provide a comprehensive, collaborative home for a multidisciplinary team of experts, including A/Prof Misty Jenkins with clinical support from Professor Kate Drummond among the professionals dedicated to improving brain cancer diagnosis and prognosis for paediatric, adolescent and adult patients.
There is also momentum in pancreatic cancer with the continual world-leading outputs from Professor Sean Grimmond and the team at the University of Melbourne Centre for Cancer Research (UMCCR) and we are seeing growth and impact from the PURPLE Translational Registry led by Dr Belinda Lee and Professor Peter Gibbs from WEHI.
In lung cancer, Professor Ben Solomon from Peter Mac is leading the development of new targeted treatments, while A/Prof Kate Sutherland’s work at WEHI is dedicated to understanding the factors that influence heterogeneity in lung cancer to bring research findings to the clinic. New interventions are being developed by A/Prof Gavin Wright from St Vincent’s Hospital, one with A/Prof Alex Dobrovic from ONJCRI on blood-based ctDNA detection as a non-invasive diagnostic tool.
Meanwhile, the PRIMCAT project led by Professor Maarten IJzerman from UMCCR and Western Health is taking a data-driven modelling approach to provide five-year epidemiological estimates of eligible patient populations and quantify the population health economic impact of new cancer treatments for colorectal cancer, non-small cell lung cancer and melanoma, and two pan-tumour biomarkers.
Alongside these cancers, liver cancer has a five-year relative survival rate of less than 25 per cent, certainly an area for improvement. As such, exploring opportunities for a collaborative research program in immuno-oncology is high on our agenda.
I recently joined Professor Joe Trapani, Director of the Centre for Cancer Immunology for a Roundtable that brought together patient experiences with those at the forefront of oncology, immunology, virology and epidemiology to discuss the alignment of our efforts to tackle liver cancer into 2022 and beyond.
VCCC Alliance Committees
I want to acknowledge the efforts of our hundreds of committee, steering group and working group members this year. The Strategic Program Plan is fueled by your generosity and passion for improving outcomes for people with cancer and we have relied heavily upon your time and judgement. We thank you so very much.
Professor Andrew Roberts AM has been the Chair of the VCCC Alliance Cancer Research Advisory Committee (CRAC) for the past five years, taking on the stewardship of the Strategic Research Plan and Strategic Program Plan during that time. As his tenure comes to an end in January 2022, Andrew's efforts will remain as an immense and durable benefit to patients and the community well into the future. Fortunately, Andrew will continue to add his expertise to several other key roles within the alliance and as a member of the Board. We look forward to welcoming a new Cancer Research Advisory Committee Chair very soon.
Victorian Cancer Registry
I was excited today to see the latest cancer incidence and survival data released by the Victorian Cancer Registry in their Cancer in Victoria 2020 report. We are fortunate to have the most timely registry data in the world, providing the opportunity to use this powerful information to respond to the current challenges. For the first time, five-year survival has hit 70 per cent, a testament to the multi-pronged approach to cancer control in Victoria.
The pandemic is very challenging for cancer control with a seven per cent reduction in cancer diagnoses through 2020 and significant impacts on patients and the health system. Pleasingly to date, there are no obvious signs of stage migration, and mortality has fallen by three per cent in 2020, interestingly mostly in males. Ongoing data from 2021 and beyond will be important for the impact of the 2400+ delayed cancer diagnoses from 2020 that will undoubtedly burden our health system.
The data relating to the continuing difference in cancer incidence across various sections of our community, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remains highly problematic and I am very keen to work with our new Research and Education Lead for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and our Health Equity Manager to use this information to inform how we can contribute to this complex and urgent issue.
Coming up in 2022
Some diary dates. World Cancer Day is on Friday 4 February 2022 with a new theme from the Union for International Cancer Control of Close the Care Gap, and the VCCC Alliance will host a special consumer-led Monday Lunch Live event on Monday 7 February. This follows on from the hugely successful annual consumer engagement forum last week. This can now be viewed online on our Open Learning page.
We hope to see some of you in person at next year’s Lorne Cancer Conference, 10-12 February, and on 24-25 March, join us for the hybrid live and virtual 4th Victorian Cancer Survivorship Conference: Shifting Gears: Rethinking Survivorship.
I would like to sincerely thank the Board, VCCC Alliance staff, our external collaborators, and all our clinicians, researchers, educators, consumer representatives, and leaders across all our organisations for your many achievements this year. Congratulations to St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne for their award this week for Most Outstanding City Hospital in Australia at the 2021 Australian Patients Association National Awards.
I wish everyone an enjoyable time with family and friends during the festive season and look forward to continuing our valuable work together in 2022.
Prof Grant McArthur