Immunotherapy is very much on the mainstream agenda this week as I return from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting, with a number of headline stories making the news internationally. This year 45,000 cancer experts assembled in Chicago for the world’s leading cancer meeting, and it was gratifying to see the extent of Victorian representation.
Among the highlights was the success of the new immunotherapy drug trial led by Professor Danny Rischin from Peter Mac in which previously incurable skin cancers have responded to a new anti-PD1 therapy drug in almost fifty per cent of patients on the trial.
The conference emphasised some key themes. Precision medicine moving into practice was an area of debate and analysis, and there was an elevated focus on patient reported outcomes and health service research. These areas echo some of the major foci of the VCCC Strategic Research Plan and coincide with programs of work currently getting underway. I am confident that the considerable groundwork undertaken by our committees, and in consultative forums in recent months align with global imperatives, and builds on the work of comprehensive cancer centres worldwide.
I was struck by the level of storytelling at this year’s ASCO meeting with patient presentations featuring in the plenary program. This marks a shift in the meeting’s historical focus from being wholly about clinical trials, targeted therapies and clinical data to integrating patient dialogue as part of clinical research.
A patient-centred approach is close to the heart of the VCCC so I was thrilled to witness testimony to excellent clinical translation and the efficacy of immunotherapy in clinical trials first-hand at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute Annual General Meeting during May, and to share in the buoyant response to the Victorian Government’s announcement of an $18 million investment in the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre.
ONJ patient Jennifer Hill talked about what it meant to be included in an international clinical trial and shared her joy of learning, in December last year, that the secondary tumours in her right lung, abdominal wall and hip had completely disappeared. Serendipity also conspired to make her experience even more positive, with the discovery that her neighbour of 24 years is none other than Jacques Miller. Jacques is the researcher from the Walter & Eliza Hill Institute who identified the role of the thymus in the immune system and the identification of T-cells in the 1960’s; laying the foundations of immunotherapy science. Jacques is now 87 and it is satisfying that in the coming months, cancer immunotherapy will be boosted as part of the VCCC’s Strategic Research Plan. I am very much looking forward to joining with our partners to tell you more about this in the near future.
Congratulations to the five senior clinician-scientists who are joining the VCCC in the newly created Research & Education Lead roles: Dr Niall Corcoran, Genito-urinary, A/Prof David Wiesenfeld, Head and neck cancers, A/Prof Linda Mileshkin, Gynae-oncology, A/Prof Hui Gan, Central nervous system and brain cancers and A/Prof Jayesh Desai, Sarcoma. These five new R&E Leads join the six existing leads in haematology, melanoma and skin cancers, primary care, nursing, lung cancer, and gastro-intestinal cancers to guide strategic programs of work that tap the huge potential of our multi-site alliance.
During May we farewelled Fiona Macken, a key member of the VCCC team for five years. Fiona has made a huge and lasting contribution to the VCCC, particularly in the area of Precision Oncology (including coordinating Australia's first Molecular Tumour Board) and Targeted Therapies; coordinating the successful Paradigms of Response and Resistance with Targeted Therapies Symposium just prior to her departure.
VCCC Head of Research Development, Dr Meredith Layton (left) with Fiona Macken and Prof Grant McArthur