A New Dynamic in Australian Cancer Research
Highlights from the VCCC Inaugural Research Conference
From 17 – 19 September, over 500 attendees, including 12 international and 62 Australian speakers, converged on five sites across Melbourne for the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre’s Inaugural Research Conference.
Over those three days we learnt not only about the latest developments in cancer research, but also about the huge potential that international visitors see in our comprehensive cancer centre.
A constellation of cancer experts
Events kicked off in the VCCC building with an opening evening of compelling speeches and insightful presentations.
An audience of invited guests including eminent researchers and leaders from Victoria’s cancer research and public health spheres were welcomed by conference convenor Prof Ricky Johnstone (Peter Mac) and Prof Grant McArthur, Executive Director of the VCCC, before Federal Health Minister, The Hon Greg Hunt MP, officially opened the conference.
The Minister was followed by Victorian Secretary for Medical Research, The Hon Frank McGuire MP, who conveyed the feeling of momentum in Victorian cancer research since Joe Biden, former US Vice-President, visited the VCCC to share his Cancer Moonshot plans.
We were brought back down to earth by Lyn Swinburne AM, founder of Breast Cancer Network Australia, who drove home exactly what cancer research can mean to patients and their families.
After these introductory speeches, our international guests stepped up to give insightful overviews of comprehensive cancer centres globally.
Prof Craig Thompson, Chairman of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), New York, and Ms Cally Palmer, Chief Executive of The Royal Marsden Hospital, London, emphasized the extensive networks of collaboration that make progress possible in their respective centres and reinforced the potential for patient benefit that comprehensive cancer centres offer.
Of note, were data from MSKCC showing that patients in the centre’s care network have a 16 per cent better five-year survival rate than other US cancer centres, and a 32 per cent better rate than US community hospitals.
With these striking statistics in mind, the event ended with drinks and a buzz of anticipation for the conference ahead.
Catalysts for knowledge
First day, 'An International Perspective' opened with remarks from Victorian Health Minister The Hon. Jill Hennessey via video and a reminder of the importance of collaboration from international guest Cally Palmer.
We then plunged into the science with a fascinating talk from Nobel laureate Prof Elizabeth Blackburn on all things telomere length. This convinced many in the audience that telomere length could be used in precision prevention of cancers and many other diseases.
Professor Elizabeth Blackburn’s amazes the audience with findings on telomere length
We continued by investigating the initiation of colorectal cancers from a number of angles, with Prof Eduard Batlle giving an overview of the cancer stem cells that drive cancer and evade treatment, followed by Prof Sir John Burn talking to us about his work to prevent colorectal, and other cancers, using aspirin.
The jam-packed day of research presentations continued with many highlights and everyone in the room learning something from other disciplines, thanks to the variety of topics and speakers.
In one session Prof Stan Riddell’s work on CAR-T immunotherapies was paired with Prof Sanchia Aranda opening our eyes to major challenges in Australian public health.
This stimulating day was rounded off by bringing the patient voice back in, with closing remarks from VCCC Consumer Committee Chair, Sophy Athan, leading us into the evening’s public community forum.
Building a community against cancer
Hosted by Sally Cockburn, also known as Dr Feelgood from 3AW’s Talking Health, the public forum – Building a Community Against Cancer – touched on some key steps in patient experience of cancer as well as some science around cancer prevention.
We learned together cancer prevention using aspirin, and the science was followed by moving conversations about lived experiences of cancer.
Cancer “thriver” Justin McLean, and Sam Ludbey-Stynes, Jim Stynes’ widow and a director of The Jim Stynes Foundation, gave us some frank insights into their experiences.
Bringing together many streams from the evening, the night finished with a lively panel session, including important questions from the audience to our community members, doctors and Prof Sanchia Aranda, CEO of Council Cancer Australia and registered nurse. Topics ranged from prevention with vaccines to improved access to clinical trials with tele-oncology, to how picking up cancer in the blood could be an option for earlier diagnosis.
Public forum speakers left to right: Ranjana Srivastava, Grant McArthur, Sally Cockburn, John Burn, Sam Ludbey-Stynes, Sanchia Aranda, Justin McLean
Tuesday - five sites, six streams, one finale
The diversity of topics on Monday and consumer involvement continued on Tuesday of the conference as each of five streams was opened with a member of the community reflecting on why research is important to them.
Natasha Stork speaking to the audience at the Austin Hospital. Natasha’s melanoma treatment was tailored to her cancer’s DNA thanks to a cutting-edge blood test at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute.
At the Royal Women’s Hospital, Olympic swimmer Nicole Livingstone spoke about losing her mother and aunt to ovarian cancer, and how her mum’s foresight of leaving a blood sample led to her own discovery of her inherited BRCA gene mutation. The day at The Women's continued covering with a diverse range of topics that all impact women undergoing cancer treatment. From the success of Australia’s HPV vaccination program to innovative on-line interventions being trialled in the Netherlands presented by international speaker Prof Neil Aaronson, to providing sexuality therapy for women living with and beyond breast cancer.
Over at the Austin Hospital, the focus was on immunotherapy and the microenvironment. Covering a huge amount of ground, delegates heard about exciting developments in immunotherapy of cancer from cell therapies to our gut microbiome.
Prof Eduard Batlle presents at the 'Immuno-oncology and the Microworld' stream of the conference
In East Melbourne, a program led by St Vincent's Hospital explored innovations in psycho-oncology including psycho-social issues in genetics plus the latest in palliative care research in two parallel streams. The international speakers, Prof Eduardo Bruera and A/Prof Lidia Schapira, also had some important and differing views on how to raise the awareness and profile of palliative care to make it a standard part of the care of cancer patients.
The team at Sunshine Hospital put forward a comprehensive program on health services research that included nursing research, wellness after cancer, pain management and much more. Importantly for the VCCC’s role in supporting patients in regional Victoria, we also heard from Dr Abhishek Joshi from Townsville Cancer Centre on his involvement in bridging distances in North Queensland using tele-oncology and tele-nursing approaches.
Speakers at Sunshine Hospital, left to right: A/Prof Jo Armes, Prof Mei Krishnasamy and Prof Debra Anderson
Finally, in the VCCC building WEHI, the University of Melbourne, Melbourne Health, Peter Mac, MCRI and The Royal Children's Hospital co-hosted a day focused on genomics in cancer care, where we heard about the latest innovations from genomic and metabolic profiles of cancer through to specific interventions in prevention and drug therapy.
After a day of thought-provoking talks across the city, delegates and speakers bussed in for a finale event at the Park Hyatt Hotel to connect, reflect, discuss and thank those who put so much into making this ambitious event a reality.
As the conference wrapped up, we reflected on the spirit of collaboration that brings us together, strengthens our way forward and will lead to the progress in cancer control that the VCCC is here to enable.
Professor Ricky Johnstone, Conference Convenor said: “The scientific committee and myself are thrilled that we have been able to host such a diverse program of speakers that reflects the wide and varied research strengths of the VCCC alliance.
"We are incredibly grateful to the international and local speakers, the sponsors, and the VCCC support team who all made this Inaugural conference possible and look forward to building on the connections made, and strengthened, during the meeting.”
Our thanks to everyone who contributed and participated, and to our generous sponsors: Illumina; University of Melbourne; CSL; Peter Mac; BMS; MSD; Novartis; Plenary; GenesisCare; Menarini; Melbourne Health; Pfizer; WEHI; St Vincent's; AGRF; CTx; City of Melbourne.
Watch our highlights video for more conference footage and photos.
For interviews with some of our international conference speakers check out the University of Melbourne's content pages:
- Ms Cally Palmer and the VCCC's Grant McArthur share their thoughts on the comprehensive cancer centre approach on the Pursuit site.
- Dr Peter Campbell and Professor Sean Grimmond discuss mapping out DNA to control cancer in the Eavesdrop on Experts podcast.
- Associate Professor Lidia Schapira talks about Getting cancer care to better reflect patients' lived experience in the Up Close podcast.
We are looking forward to a second conference in 2019!