With innovative clinical trials, cutting-edge research and world-class patient care operating under the one roof, the Flinders Centre for Innovation in Cancer is undoubtedly “a step ahead”.
That’s the word from internationally-recognised precision medicine expert Professor Chris Karapetis, the Director of Clinical Research in Medical Oncology at the Flinders Centre for Innovation in Cancer (FCIC) and neighbouring Flinders Medical Centre (FMC).
Instrumental in anchoring FMC’s clinical trials unit to the FCIC when it opened in 2012, Professor Karapetis has seen hundreds of success stories come out of the Centre’s studies to test the efficacy of different cancer treatments.
“Through our trials we get access to the most innovative treatments ahead of those treatments being recognised as standard,” Professor Karapetis says.
“That makes us a step ahead.”
For example, the Centre was one of the first in the world to successfully treat melanoma with immune therapy.
Before then, Professor Karapetis says chemotherapy was the standard treatment for advanced melanoma, with an “abysmal” success rate.
“It was a treatment that hardly ever worked and, even when it did, it worked only for a very short period of time. I remember seeing patients, very young patients, with metastatic melanoma who would die fairly quickly.
“Immune therapy treatments have now come a long way and we're seeing patients survive for 10 years or more. These are patients with melanoma that spread to the liver, the bones and the brain so it’s remarkable to think they could get five or 10 years’ survival, maybe even a cure.
“It's just great to have the option and opportunity for patients to be part of trials.”
World famous research
The chief investigator in more than 160 clinical trials, Professor Karapetis is famously known for his groundbreaking work on predictive biomarkers in gastro-intestinal malignancy.
He says everyone has certain blood or tissue markers that, when tested against certain cancer drugs, can determine whether or not the treatment will be a success on an individual level.
The findings of his research have changed the management of colorectal cancer globally. The associated New England Journal of Medicine publication was nominated as one of the five key medical publications of 2008 by the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet.
“My clinical research is around trying to better understand which treatments work, when they work and who they work for so we can just do a blood test and tell a patient, ‘there's no point giving you this treatment because it's just not going to work’.
“We're still doing research in this area, trying to find other markers and other ways of getting better outcomes for patients with cancer.
“We don't want to give them treatments that we know are going to be ineffective and maybe toxic if we can tell upfront, not to mention the expense of some of these medicines.”
Cause for collaboration
Professor Karapetis says FCIC researchers are involved in hundreds of projects spanning many sites and scientists – one of which involves treating rectal cancer without the burden of surgery and subsequent consequences, including living with a permanent stoma (a surgically made hole that allows waste to be removed from the body).
Other studies underway include combining chemotherapy and immune therapy to better treat oesophageal cancer, as well as trials in blood cancers such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Before the FCIC was built on the space between FMC and nearby Flinders University, the researchers from both establishments were scattered across the Bedford Park precinct. The four-storey glass atrium put Flinders on the map, according to Professor Karapetis.
“By having the building, we created a certain degree of exposure that then made the site more popular, and certainly for people who want to work in this space, it made them more aware of us.
“It created a strong profile for Flinders as a place where good things are happening in cancer.”
Wellness over illness
Aside from world-class research, the FCIC embodies excellence in patient care; the infusion suite being one example of distinctive design meeting practicality.
The other is the ground-floor Wellness Centre including comfortable rest rooms for patients who have just undergone treatment upstairs, meeting rooms for consultations with allied health practitioners, and an information hub with computers, brochures and books.
“After their treatment is finished, patients might be living with the physical consequences of the intervention they went through. The psychological effects of having been diagnosed with cancer and going through that experience can also produce lasting consequences.
“So dietitians, physiotherapists and psychologists are all there to support patients and provide them with the extra care they need as they go through their treatments, and afterwards.
“The building is very much focused on wellness, not just acute illness.”
The future of Flinders
As the FCIC celebrates a decade of history in 2022, the focus is on the future.
Talks are already underway to expand and reconfigure areas of the building, including more infusion chairs in the chemo day clinic.
“These are things we're talking about now as we plan for the future.
“It's a dynamic place and it will keep changing to meet the demands and to improve.”