More Australians will beat cancer in the future as survival rates surge upwards and researchers make huge inroads into the disease.
An exclusive survey of Australia’s top cancer research institutes by The New Daily has found scientists are successfully treating cancers previously thought of as terminal and giving patients a longer lease on life.
Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre’s executive director, cancer research, Professor Joe Trapani, said in as little as 11 years’ time, advances in cancer research mean most cancer patients will have the odds on their side.
“If the current rate of progress continues, by 2025–30, 85 to 90 per cent of people diagnosed will survive for a long time and, as fallback, multiple therapies for will be available for many people with cancer,” he says.
“Also, advances in clinical research and symptom management mean that not only will people live longer, but they will live better.”
Professor Gannon said there was a time when some cancers would be measured in terms of their five year survival rate. Now, increasingly, researchers are talking about 10 year survival rates.
“The current trend towards progressively lower grant funding successes for basic research will limit chances of discovering the next breakthrough.”
Professor Trapani says long-term survival rates have increased at an average of 1 per cent every year since the 1970s. At this rate, he says it is likely some cancers will be treated as chronic diseases in the future rather than a curable condition.
“This should be a cause of great optimism, rather than resignation,” Professor Trapani says.
“Our goal is to improve early detection and build our arsenal of therapies that will either kill cancer cells outright, or keep cancer cells under control dormant.”
Chasing a cure
A cure for cancer is still the top priority for researchers at the six institutes surveyed by The New Daily: the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Lowy Cancer Research Centre, St Vincent’s Institute, Children’s Cancer Institute Australia, South Australia Health and Medical Research Institute and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.
Cancer is Australia’s leading cause of death and according to Cancer Council statistics, an estimated 124,910 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in Australia this year with that number set to rise to 150,000 by 2020.
QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute director Professor Frank Gannon says early detection and surgery is already successfully curing patients of some cancers and more improvements are on the way.
“Some tumours which were once deadly are no longer so,” he says.
“Testicular cancer has promising outcomes, childhood leukaemia is another area where huge inroads have been made.
“Each year there are new compounds and new approaches which weren’t on the horizon previously. They are very promising.”
Groundbreaking research into paediatric cancers has resulted in survival rates more than doubling in the past 30 years.
Breakthroughs still needed
But Children’s Cancer Institute Australia research officer and the 2013 Balnaves Foundation’s Young Researcher of the Year Dr Daniel Carter says new therapies are required to unlock the secrets of incurable childhood cancers, he says.
“While this progress is promising and indicative of our potential to find a cure, these strategies need to change so we can continue to progress with the same momentum as the last 30 years,” Dr Carter says.
Australian scientists are confident their work will contribute to the worldwide search for a cure to cancer, citing the successful work of Dr Ian Frazer and his development of a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer.
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute bowel cancer researchers Dr Jeanne Tie and Associate Professor Peter Gibbs say our researchers have already made major discoveries to help cancer patients survive longer and live better lives.
“There are many talented Australian researchers and clinicians who are continuing to improve our understanding of the biology of different cancer types, to develop new cancer screening tests and to develop new treatments for cancers,” they say.
“For example, a scientific discovery made at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in 1988 has led to the development of a new class of anti-cancer agents called BH3-mimetics that target ‘immortal’ cells, which are now in clinical trials worldwide.”
More funds needed
However researchers consistently report the major obstacle to their progress is a dwindling pool of government funds. This means grants are becoming far more competitive and ultimately, the pace of research developments is slowing.
Associate Professor Jörg Heierhorst, who heads the Molecular Genetics Unit at St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research, says future developments are at risk.
“The current trend towards progressively lower grant funding successes for basic research will limit chances of discovering the next breakthrough,” he says.
“We need more money for basic research to make discoveries that can then be translated into the clinic.”
This call is echoed by Professor Trapani who says decreasing funds is an ongoing concern in the medical research industry.
“More and more researchers are competing for funds from a diminishing pool of Federal Government grants,” he says.
In the 2013-14 budget, the Federal Government spent $226 million on cancer research including the new Australian Prostate Cancer Research Centre, public health programs like plain cigarette packaging and treatment costs such as chemotherapy.