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09 Jun 2022

Executive Director’s Message, June 2022

  • VCCC Alliance

As we enter another winter, the healthcare sector once again finds itself under exceptional pressure due to the ongoing and wide-ranging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘Pandemic fatigue’ in the community combined with a creeping complacency in infection control and mask-wearing has only increased the strain on an already stretched system.

According to a study of thousands of frontline healthcare workers led by the Royal Melbourne Hospital, more than 70% were working beyond exhaustion. Many of us have seen first-hand the impacts of hospital staff furloughing en masse and its consequent effects on our patients. There is no simple answer to this complex situation so while health sector leaders work with government on solutions, I add my voice to implore everyone who hasn’t yet, to please get their now-free flu shot, and wear masks whenever appropriate, to try to ease some of the pressure.

One thing that does give me great heart is the way my colleagues across the health sector continue to band together to support each other. In times like these it’s just so important to have each other’s backs.

Change brings opportunity

It’s impossible to acknowledge the recent federal election result without also recognising the huge opportunity that comes with a new government, new leaders, and new members of our national parliament. A new government brings an injection of fresh perspectives on the hill in Canberra and a new opportunity to influence the key policies and directions nationally for cancer.

I am especially encouraged by the swathe of first-time MPs from medical and scientific backgrounds who have been sworn into our federal parliament:

  • Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah – Clinician-Scientist, Infectious Diseases Physician – Higgins, VIC (LAB)
  • Dr Monique Ryan – Paediatric Neurologist – Kooyong, VIC (IND)
  • Dr Sophie Scamps – GP – Mackellar, NSW (IND)
  • Dr Gordon Reid – Physician – Robertson, NSW (LAB)
  • Kylea Tink – former CEO McGrath Foundation, former CEO Camp Quality – North Sydney, NSW (IND)
  • Louise Miller-Frost – over 15 years running health services across South Australia – Boothby, SA (LAB)

There is clearly an opportunity to have health on the political agenda despite the desire from many quarters to have the pandemic behind us. With the draft of the National Cancer Plan due for distribution at the end of this year, we look to play our part to ensure it delivers for all Australians affected by cancer, now and in the future.

Recognition a sign momentum is building

On an exciting and positive note, the momentum of our ambitious alliance is really gaining traction. Over the past month our work has been acknowledged in several national and international awards, spanning multiple aspects of our organisation – research, education and clinical trials.

In early May, the VCCC Alliance and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre were jointly awarded the prestigious Committee for Melbourne’s Melbourne Achiever Award 2022 for our outstanding contribution to Health and Research. Many people contributed to this success, but at the heart is Melbourne’s exceptional foundations in biomedical research and medical care, so this is truly an award shared by the collective.

Dr Nienke Zomerdijk, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the VCCC Alliance and the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, was awarded the 2021 Margot Prior Early Career Research Award in Clinical Science for her research published on the psychological impact of COVID-19 on blood cancer patients. Nienke’s collaborative approach and leadership in the mental health of people with cancer throughout the pandemic has been highlighted in features by the University of Melbourne and the ABC, and I congratulate her on another landmark moment in her flourishing career.

Our award-winning Master of Cancer Sciences with The University of Melbourne claimed another accolade, winning gold in the international 2022 Telly Awards. The prize was awarded Gold in the Education and Training category for ‘Stereotactic Radiotherapy’, an educational film delivered by Associate Professor David Kok and written alongside Dr Sathana Dushyanthen. The film beat out Microsoft and Harvard Business School, who took silver and bronze respectively.

And finally, I was delighted to see the SKILLED Clinical Trials Internship Program awarded the ARCS 2022 Innovation Award (Organisation). The award acknowledges an organisation which showed creativity, resolve and resilience to solve what seemed like intractable issues in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. From an idea originally conceived by Marian Leischke of Parkville Cancer Clinical Trials Unit, SKILLED continues to go from strength to strength, and by the end of 2022, it’s expected to have produced 77 job-ready interns in just four years with much more growth in the pipeline.

Teletrials right on target

In other great news, our ground-breaking Teletrials networked partnership strategy has really proven its worth. The results of the first clinical trial using that new strategy, TARGET-TP, a targeted intervention to mitigate the risk of cancer-associated thromboembolism, led by Associate Professor Kate Burbury and Dr Marliese Alexander at Peter Mac has delivered practice-changing results.

This is rewarding proof of concept for our Teletrials program, offering real benefits for people living in regional areas and the promise of greater equity of access to cutting edge interventions in the future.

Oncology world reunites

Despite the turbulence of the last few years, I have been delighted to see the exceptional advances in cancer research up in lights once again at the 2022 American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting this week in Chicago. As a global oncology network, we have been largely physically isolated, so it was great to see some of the brightest minds in oncology able to reconvene and reconnect in person.

The VCCC Alliance community is well represented at the meeting with some significant presentations and posters on display, including a landmark presentation by Associate Professor Jeanne Tie of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and WEHI, who has presented her paper: Circulating Tumour DNA Analysis Guiding Adjuvant Therapy in Stage II Colon Cancer. Associate Professor Tie’s practice-changing research found that a ctDNA-guided approach to the treatment of stage II colon cancer reduced adjuvant chemotherapy use without compromising recurrence-free survival. This study, simultaneously published in the New England Journal of Medicine, was an investigator-initiated trial that was born in research undertaken by Dr Tie during her MD at WEHI. Her work was part of a broad and strong theme for me this year at ASCO – the use of ctDNA technology to stratify risk of recurrence or outcomes that is now emerging as a key technology to personalise therapy to those at greatest risk. This is a paradigm shift away from one size fits all therapies.

Congratulations to all the Australian presenters.

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