OPINION: Cancer biobank informs future treatment

TREATMENTS for cancer have improved dramatically over recent decades, yet too many people still succumb to this horrible disease. 

One of the major challenges for improving treatment is that every patient’s cancer is different to every other patient’s cancer. Moreover, cancers that return or spread are not exactly the same as the first cancer that was removed by a surgeon. 

Cancers change and evolve over time. Patients with “common” cancers benefit from knowledge gained by research into the diagnosis and management of that disease, which helps doctors guide their treatment. But those patients who are unlucky to suffer a “rare” cancer can be confronted with no clear treatment options. 

Even people with “common” cancers can be administered “standard” treatments that fail. 

This highlights the unfortunate truth that every patient’s cancer is unique, and this complexity is a major reason why a targeted treatment may work incredibly well for small subsets of patients but fail in other groups. 

Recognising this complexity gives us the opportunity to improve cancer treatments for everyone. After an operation to remove cancer, pieces of that cancer are examined by pathologists to check what kind of cancer it was, and to inform decisions about other treatments such as radiation or chemotherapy. 

The rest of the cancer sample is usually discarded.

However if a patient gives their permission, any leftover cancer can be deposited into a “bank” of cancer tissues to be deep-frozen for future use by researchers. 

This bank becomes an incredible resource in cancer research, helping medical scientists like those at the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI), the University of Newcastle and the Calvary Mater Newcastle. 

The Hunter Cancer Biobank is based at the HMRI Building and supported by the Hunter Cancer Research Alliance.

The Hunter Cancer Biobank is providing samples to help study cancers of the brain, breast, bowel, kidney, lung, pancreas and prostate among others. Because every patient’s cancer is different, it’s vital that we try to save every patient’s cancer – because someone somewhere may hold the cure for that kind of cancer. 

To give an example, work in our lab on kidney cancer is based on samples donated by over 400 patients. Ahead of time we cannot predict which samples will be the most informative. In this case Patient #22 and Patient #243 have transformed our understanding of kidney cancer.

Properly storing these precious cancer samples is time-consuming and expensive. Currently we do not collect as many samples as we could. 

The Cancer Institute of NSW has supported Hunter researchers to develop an educational package that helps explain the process of donating cancer samples to research. It was launched on Monday at HMRI.  See powerofbiobanking.com for details.

A diagnosis of cancer changes your life. But patients can use their cancer to change the life of someone else. Knowing the many similarities and differences in cancer types helps us predict who will benefit from certain treatments and what new therapies are worth considering.

Ask your doctor about donating your cancer to research. Whose life would you change?

Dr Craig Gedye is a medical oncologist at the Calvary Mater Newcastle, supported by the Hunter Cancer Research Alliance as a Research Fellow at HMRI