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08 Sep 2022

Executive Director's Message, September 2022

  • VCCC Alliance
  • Austin Health
  • Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute

Victoria leads the way

Victoria has long been regarded as a national and international leader in medical and scientific research.

Our state’s history is littered with key advances, notably the game-changing WEHI and VCCC Alliance member-developed Venetoclax, and more recently the Eureka Prize-winning NanoMSlide, developed by La Trobe University’s Professor Brian Abbey and Eugeniu Balaur in partnership with Associate Professor Belinda Parker of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

Melbourne-born biotech manufacturer CSL’s accomplishments on the global stage have further strengthened Victoria’s position as a leader, while the Cumming Global Centre for Pandemic Therapeutics at The Doherty Institute announced last week, will become the latest in a long line of leading biomedical centres.

With new initiatives like Breakthrough Victoria complementing existing organisations such as WEHI’s National Drug Discovery Centre and cancer-specific companies such as Canthera Discover, Oncology One and Biocurate, we have a remarkable foundation of state-based success in developing new and innovative medicines.

To borrow a phrase from Sir Isaac Newton, we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and it is our responsibility to build on this foundation to benefit our whole community.

Equity for regional, rural, diverse and marginalised populations must become a priority in the cancer sector at all levels – the draft of the National Cancer Plan confirms as much – so we have an opportunity to shape the way we approach cancer research, education and care state-wide.

As the election campaign ramps up towards the state vote in November, it is really pleasing to see a strong focus on our healthcare workforce from both the Government and opposition including investment in education and training as part of the pandemic recovery, which remains a major focus for us.

Also front of mind as the future of the health system is in focus is the mounting undiagnosed case load in Victoria – clearly in the thousands – and how we, as a healthcare system, are equipped to deal with a potential rise in presentation of cancer at later stages.

Honouring our past, celebrating our future

The prestigious new Tony Burgess Medal was created to honour Professor Tony Burgess’s pivotal contributions to the establishment of the VCCC building and the VCCC Alliance over many years, as well as to pay tribute to Tony’s enormous mark on cancer research.

Tonight, we confer the inaugural Tony Burgess Medal to Associate Professor Jessica Howell for her ground-breaking liver cancer research.

Liver cancer is one of the poorer outcome cancers (26 per cent five-year relative survival rate) and is a significant focus for the VCCC Alliance. According to 2020 data from the Victorian Cancer Registry, liver cancer also represents a major red flag for equitable outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Aboriginal Victorians are 3.8 times more likely to contract liver cancer compared to their non-Aboriginal counterparts – the biggest difference of the major cancers – while Aboriginal Victorian males were 3.7 times more likely to die compared to their non-Aboriginal counterparts.

Jessica’s multidisciplinary research is an excellent example of integrated, translatable innovation. It is exactly the type of approach that we want to encourage and support – discoveries that make it from lab to clinic, improving prevention, treatment and care of anyone who is at risk of developing, or has, cancer.

It was encouraging to see strong applications from hugely talented early- to mid-career researchers, and this fills me with confidence for the future of world-class research in this state.

An indelible legacy: Vale Olivia Newton-John

Finally, I sadly acknowledge the loss of one of our biggest global advocates.

Olivia Newton-John will be remembered for much by many – she leaves behind an indelible legacy in music, cancer research and wellness – but for me it is difficult to look past her enormous contribution to cancer research as a measure of impact.

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Olivia’s generosity and leadership in fostering world-class cancer research will not be forgotten, and she has given Victoria an incredible and lasting asset in the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute and the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre.

No doubt this year’s annual Olivia’s Walk for Wellness on Sunday 9 October will be a particularly emotional event for the whole cancer community but especially our colleagues at Austin Health, the Olivia Newton John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre and the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute.

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