Back in 2000, enthusiastic junior oncologists Bogda Koczwara and Chris Karapetis had a dream to open a clinical trials unit at Flinders Medical Centre (FMC). Alison Richards soon joined the team with a single open study and one patient.
Fast forward to 2022 and hundreds of studies have gone through the unit, which is based at the Flinders Centre for Innovation in Cancer (FCIC), including approximately 100 trials that are currently recruiting participants or awaiting ethics approval.
“When I came to FMC 22 years ago, there was one clinical trial which was closed and a new study with just one patient,” Alison, FCIC’s Research Unit Manager, Clinical Trials, recalls.
“We started with me working half time in trials and moved three research staff over to the FCIC when it first opened,” she says.
“Over the past couple of years, we have been grateful for support in expanding from eight to 18 workstations to accommodate our growing research department.”
The start of something great
From the day she arrived in 2000, Alison says there was talk of a new cancer centre earmarked for the carpark adjacent to FMC.
“One day in early 2005, I took it upon myself to trot over to the [Flinders] Foundation offices and introduce myself to CEO Deborah Heithersay. I said, ‘I'm really keen to know what you have planned for clinical trials in the new building’, her response was ‘what is a clinical trial?’
“That forged a really good working relationship where we were able to work well together to design a state-of-the-art, fit-for-purpose clinical trials space in the building.
“When I first started, I was sharing a single office with a specialist that was there half a day a week. For me, it was really exciting to be part of designing and building the new cancer centre.”
The golden chalice
Specialising in medical oncology, Alison’s department oversees studies that investigate therapy combinations on different tumour groups. Her team also provides input into research for improving quality of life through patient-reported outcomes and supportive care, which is a distinguishing feature of the Centre.
“The golden chalice, what everybody's here for, is to find a cure for cancer but we need to take a more pragmatic approach.
“We don't say ‘you’re invited to participate in this study, we're going to cure cancer’, we say ‘on this study it might help you live longer’, or ‘it might help with your potential side-effects’.
“For example, the older generation would remember chemotherapy being a sometimes-horrendous experience where people would vomit and feel awful.
“Thanks to clinical trials, there have been some remarkable improvements in managing those quite debilitating side-effects so that, despite undergoing chemotherapy that can make people feel really sick, they feel okay.
“To me, that’s a measure of success.
“We've also seen some fantastic survival benefits through trials in prostate and breast cancer, where patients received new treatments that are now the standard of care, or where they were offered drugs that helped them well before they were available on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.”
A lasting legacy
Alison says that in addition to the wonderful staff who work there, a real benefit of the FCIC is its ability to provide a peaceful, light and bright environment across the patient journey, from diagnosis to survivorship.
Inside the four-storey glass atrium is a ground-floor information hub filled with computers, brochures and books for patients and families, supported by a Cancer Council SA nurse representative.
The ground floor also provides a wide range of public facilities including cosy rest rooms for patients who have recently undergone treatment upstairs, meeting rooms for patients to consult with specialist allied health practitioners, and a warm and welcoming café.
“If you think about someone you care about coming to a hospital to be diagnosed with cancer and then coming to a building that's quite beautiful and open and clean, it can make a difference in their ability to hope, and to heal.
“Up on level three in the cancer clinic, there’s a pin board full of thank-you cards. To everyone who works here at the Centre, that means the world.”