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Winter 2013 Issue
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A personal approach to treating cancer

Cancer sufferers are being given new hope by University of Adelaide researchers who are combining their different skill sets to discover alternative ways of tackling the disease.

Five agonising years watching his elder brother's long and painful struggle with cancer shaped a young Paul Neilsen's future.

He was just 10 when Brad contracted Ewing's sarcoma, a rare and aggressive bone cancer which afflicts mostly young people.

Witnessing traditional treatments ultimately fail his brother - who died at the age of 18 - Paul made a vow to research new avenues to treat the disease.

His journey eventually brought him into contact with Professor David Callen who is the inspiration behind the Centre for Personalised Cancer Medicine (CPCM) at the University of Adelaide.

As the name suggests, the centre is taking an individual approach to cancer care and finding out why some people respond to treatments in different ways.

It's a multi-disciplinary research program which is giving individual patients new hope when standard treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery are no longer effective.

The research team has world-leading strengths in areas such as blood cancers and solid tumours, particularly breast, lung, and melanoma, and treatments for symptom control.

Thanks to the input of Dr Paul Neilsen, the CPCM is also providing exciting new therapeutic options for sarcoma.

"While the same standard treatments are being provided for various cancers now as they were back 40 years ago, today we're working on a whole range of new targeted therapies which can be applied if the patients don't respond to the currently available treatments," he said.

"What we're trying to do is look at the different aspects of cancer and tailor the care and treatment for each individual."

The research scope of the CPCM is broad, and aims to personalise the patient journey from prevention and treatment to rehabilitation and palliative care.

The CPCM is also working closely with the recently opened Cancer Genomics Facility in Adelaide.

Recent advances in genomics sequencing are giving researchers new insights into the development of tumours, enabling them to identify key mutations which are unique to individual patients.

These differences are among the main reasons why some patients survive and others die despite receiving the same standard treatment. The goal is to find specific pharmaceutical agents to target these different mutations.

"Our centre now reflects the trend towards a new, individualised approach to cancer medicine, taking into account genetic variations between people and their reaction to specific drugs," Professor Callen said.

"While still in the developmental stage, there are enormous resources being poured into DNA sequencing overseas and it looks like we will follow this lead in Australia."

Before the CPCM was established different areas of cancer research were spread across the University. Now there is close-knit collaboration involving people from quite different specialist fields, including surgeons,
clinicians, scientists, medical chemists and physics experts involved in areas such as sensing.

Dr Neilsen's work on sarcoma is typical of the approach.

He oversees the Sarcoma Research Group and works closely with clinicians in the analysis of individual tumours.

His team has developed a novel method of growing fresh, patient-derived sarcoma specimens in the laboratory to test their sensitivity to new treatments - and some of the results are extremely encouraging.

Ewing's sarcoma is a particularly aggressive cancer which afflicts mainly male teenagers. The mortality rate is 40 per cent increasing to 90 per cent for patients with metastatic or recurrent disease.

Within the next few years Dr Neilsen plans to begin clinical trials to provide other treatment options for patients with this disease who haven't responded to the standard therapies.

"When my brother was fighting sarcoma he didn't have that second chance."

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