Can we dramatically improve cancer survival rates?

Every day, 60 New Zealanders will find out they have cancer. This country has the fourth highest cancer rate in the world. The disease accounts for nearly a third of all deaths and more than 70 percent of cancer deaths are of those aged 65 and over. Left unchecked, it will become a growing problem as our population ages.

But progress is being made. A fundraiser run through The New Zealand Herald in 1956 resonated so strongly with readers that it provided the backing for what was to become the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre (ACSRC) at the University of Auckland. The Centre is now one of the world’s leading cancer research laboratories and is helping to drive a new era in cancer treatment.

There is now a realistic expectation that, within a generation, we will be able to manage most cancers long-term as a chronic but treatable, rather than fatal, disease.

Distinguished Professor Bill Denny Director, Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre

Powerful new technologies are transforming the way we approach cancer treatment and are significantly improving survival rates. The ‘one size fits all’ approach of the past is being replaced with individually targeted treatments.

Professor Mark McKeage and his team at the ACSRC have been trialling personalised medicine tailored to an individual’s genetic makeup or the genetic profile of their tumour. Personalised cancer medicine involves taking a patient’s samples, identifying the key DNA mutations that drive the cancer, then disabling that cancer with a targeted drug therapy selected specifically for that person. The results have been remarkable. The survival time for patients with specific types of lung cancer has already been extended from a few months to two or more years. Work is also underway to understand how genetic variations contribute to the different ways in which colorectal cancer patients respond to therapy. Research is now needed into other types of cancer.

Another new and revolutionary pathway in cancer treatment, immunotherapy, is being investigated at the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery. Instead of targeting the cancer directly, the drugs harness the patient’s own immune system to recognise and kill their cancer cells. This type of treatment is delivering long-lasting remissions for participants in clinical trials internationally and avoids the damaging side-effects of chemotherapy.

The challenge ahead is to extend these positive early results in genomics and immunotherapy so that many more patients can benefit.

We are reaching a turning point in our approach to cancer. Now, more than ever before, we need to back our researchers so they can help to transform the way that cancer is treated, leading to dramatically improved survival rates for patients.

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To find out more about how you can help, contact Carly Murrell.

Carly Murrell, Development Manager, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences

PH: + 64 9 923 9235