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01 Sep 2022

Groundbreaking liver cancer research earns inaugural Tony Burgess Medal

  • St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne
  • VCCC Alliance

Groundbreaking research that is improving screening and diagnoses for liver cancer has earned Associate Professor Jessica Howell the Inaugural Tony Burgess Medal awarded by the VCCC Alliance.

The St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne gastroenterologist will be awarded a $5,000 prize and deliver the plenary address on the eve of the VCCC Alliance Postdoctoral Symposium on 8 September. The address has been established in honour of Prof Tony Burgess’s significant contribution to the establishment of the VCCC building and the VCCC Alliance.

A/Prof Howell, who also holds Senior Research Fellow positions with both the University of Melbourne and the Burnet Institute, heads a multidisciplinary research program that led to the invention of two world-first, rapid point-of-care tests for liver inflammation and cirrhosis.

“This research has advanced diagnostic and screening tools for liver cancer,” VCCC Alliance Executive Director Grant McArthur said. “The team has now worked with St Vincent’s Pathology to develop Australia’s first scalable, low-cost population-level screening program via routine blood tests, that also links into care, for cirrhosis.”

A/Prof Howell’s work has resulted in two patents, a clinical trial in Ethiopia, an NHMRC Ideas Grant and Federal Minister commendation (2020), and a Victorian Medical Research Acceleration Fund grant (2021). It has influenced national and international guidelines and Australian policies.

“Jessica’s multidisciplinary research is an excellent example of integrated, translatable innovation,” Prof McArthur said. “It’s 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 at risk of developing, or has, cancer.”

A/Prof Howell said: “It is a tremendous honour to be receiving an award named in honour of Prof Tony Burgess, whose pioneering work in cancer began at the lab bench and transformed the lives of people with cancer at the bedside. This award reflects the incredible work of my team and collaborators, whose generous support has made our program of work possible.” 

“Liver cancer has a very low survival rate and disproportionately affects marginalised people,” she said. “As a hepatologist, every week I see the impact of liver cancer on the lives of my patients and their families. This drives me to search for new ways to improve equitable outcomes for people with liver cancer.”

In the past five years, A/Prof Howell has published 75 papers, all while working part-time in research. She credited supportive mentors, work environment, and her family as vital to the success of her research.

Prof Burgess congratulated A/Prof Howell on being awarded the inaugural medal named in his honour. “The impact Jessica’s research has had on liver cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care is the type of outcome I hoped would be achieved if we could improve the integration of the cancer system and provide more support for effective collaborations,” Prof Burgess said. “Her discoveries, ability to work collaboratively, the change she has bought about in policy and guidelines, have all improved the outlook for people facing liver cancer. Jessica’s results show what is possible when we all work together with the shared goal of changing cancer healthcare right across the spectrum.”

About the research

The research that led to the discovery and test development involves circulating cell-free DNA (ctDNA), which is DNA released by tumours into the bloodstream, to detect disease and determine the level of disease risk. A/Prof Howell and her team developed a novel approach which involved comparing mutations found in ctDNA in the bloodstream with the patient’s own healthy DNA in their white blood cells, to increase detection and accuracy of circulating cell-free mutations. This overcame a major barrier to progress in this area – a lack of liver tumour tissue from biopsies, which are not always carried out.

About Professor Tony Burgess AC

Professor Tony Burgess AC is one of Australia’s top cancer researchers, former Director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in Melbourne and Professor of Surgery at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, University of Melbourne since 1980.

In 1998 he was appointed a Companion of the General Division of the Order of Australia (AC) for his outstanding services to science and medicine, especially in the field of cancer research.

It was Professor Burgess’s vision for a collaborative Centre of Excellence for Cancer Research, Education and Training and patient care that ultimately led to the establishment of the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre (VCCC). With Tony as its champion, the ambitious concept gained support from key figures in government and healthcare who saw the potential and worked collaboratively to get the idea off the ground. There is no doubt that this visionary plan has already reshaped cancer research and care in Victoria, and saved lives.  The ripple effect will continue to expand and bring benefits for years to come.

Professor Burgess served on the VCCC Board of Directors for five years and is now an Honorary Fellow of the VCCC Alliance.

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