To capture the profound impact of cancer and the monumental importance of cancer research in a few short words is no simple feat. Yet the burden of the insidious disease is something world-leading cancer expert Professor Ross McKinnon expresses so eloquently.
“Cancer is a stake in the ground. It’s an emotive disease and it’s a disease that drives technical development; a galvanizing point for many things that are important in advancing medical research worldwide,” he says.
“A lot of the landmark breakthroughs in medical research are made in the cancer space so it's a trailblazer for research and because of that, it's critically important.
“It's also a disease that has many flow-on effects in terms of quality of life for the individuals that have been affected, and the impact on families and relationships.
“The reality is that cancer affects every family and if it hasn't – it's only a matter of time.”
It's these very reasons that sparked the Flinders Foundation’s decade-long campaign to build South Australia’s first integrated cancer centre – a flagship for world-class research, compassionate patient care and survivorship.
The Flinders Centre for Innovation in Cancer (FCIC) opened in April 2012 on the back of a hard-fought battle by the Foundation to raise $30 million in funding to create the space that occupies a shared footprint between Flinders Medical Centre and neighbouring Flinders University.
Professor McKinnon became involved in the Centre before the physical foundations were laid. Recruited in 2011, he was charged with the monumental challenge of leading a whole-of-Flinders’ approach to the hospital and university’s somewhat disparate research activities.
Once it opened, Professor McKinnon served as inaugural Director of the FCIC for five years, effectively becoming the public face of Flinders’ cancer crusade. Then, in 2019, he became Foundation Director of the university-owned Flinders Health and Medical Research Institute.
“The FCIC was built on a tripartite mission to combine high-quality clinical services, research and community engagement – it was very much a flagship facility for a whole raft of objectives in the cancer space that we set out to achieve.
“And the reason it worked so well is because the people who worked in the cancer area of Flinders, whether they were involved in the clinic delivery of services or in research, embraced the concept and wanted to make a real difference to our patients and our community.”
By the people for the people
Aside from the holistic approach it takes to cancer – from its dual role as a centre of research excellence and a second home of sorts for the people being treated there – a distinguishing feature of the FCIC lies in how it came to fruition.
“The building was built philanthropically, without any major external or internal funding. It wasn't built by Flinders University and it wasn't built by the health system. It was built by the Foundation and the Foundation raised that funding through a range of philanthropic sources, some government funds and a range of personal donations from people whose names are written on the wall of the building.
“When it opened there was almost a sense of wonderment from people like myself and those who worked there because it very much felt like a communal resource and a communal facility."
“It wasn't like other university buildings. It wasn't like other health buildings, it was something different, something special.”
Collaborating for a common cause
Having once worked in silos scattered throughout the University and hospital, the researchers who came to occupy the upper levels of the four-storey complex in 2012 embraced a new way of working – from the most eminent scientists to early career researchers.
And Professor McKinnon was no exception.
“One of the reasons I came to Flinders was in the hope that I could work with Chris Karapetis, the head of our oncology services and a world-famous researcher in the precision medicine space.
“In the first year I was at Flinders when I wasn't located in the building, I think I saw Chris twice. When I moved into the building, I saw Chris every day.
“That culture of interaction was quite special. I felt an incredible sense of community and it felt different to any other time I've worked in a university, and I've done a lot of time in universities.”
The concept of collaboration is what Professor McKinnon says raised the profile of cancer not only at Flinders, but within Flinders.
“When you've got a mixed group of people that are operating across 10 different sites and then suddenly you give them a flagship focus, it becomes much more visible to the broader Flinders community."
“As a result of that, we got some excellent collaborative practices with the broader university environment and the involvement of people from outside cancer research, including the nursing college, for example.”
A stunning success
Research growth, a better patient experience and a greater sense of community connection – these are just some of the highlights from a very long list of accomplishments in the Centre’s short history.
For one, there’s the world’s oldest survivorship conference founded by the FCIC; there’s the remarkable breakthroughs in gastroenterology research, precision medicine and low-dose radiation; and there’s the grassroots implications for the people who walk through the glass doors every day.
“In terms of research metrics we’ve had quite spectacular growth; at one stage almost a quarter of the university's research income was coming from a cancer-related project and we’ve sustained that.
“We’ve also built an environment where patients can see the people who look after them and see the people who are working on research projects to improve their care.
“When people walk into the building, they feel it’s their home in terms of their cancer journey.”
The past that shapes the future
Back where this story begins, with the surmise that cancer will catch us in one way, at some stage, is also where Professor McKinnon’s deeply personal battle began.
His relentless fight to find better treatments, to improve outcomes and to enhance the patient experience started after he lost his wife to breast cancer.
Now leading the front at the Flinders Health and Medical Research Institute, he reflects back on the incremental yet monumental advances in cancer over the years with humility.
“I'm incredibly proud of what we achieved in the early years of the Centre but it was always going to be an evolution.
“One of the things that drives us most is there are still these outstanding challenges; pick any type of cancer and there'll be a major challenge associated with it.
“If we talk breast cancer, it’s how can women live their lives to the highest quality after the experience; in prostate cancer it's how do we manage the disease because it's so complex. And if we talk pancreatic cancer where the outcomes are appalling, it’s how do we get better survival rates?
“But I think we are strongly placed now to tackle these challenges as a result of the things that we put in place back then.
“I'm just as excited by the future as I was 10 years ago.”