A generous man’s chance encounter with Flinders Medical Centre 35 years ago is now helping to change the future for men with prostate and bladder cancers.
Ralph Ernst was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 1988 while travelling around Australia with wife Pixie.
Operated on and cared for by the urology service at Flinders, Ralph and Pixie never forgot the care they received and were passionate about supporting men with similar cancers until their passings in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
Together, Ralph and Pixie left a generous gift to Flinders Foundation, to support research into men’s cancers for many years to come.
This legacy now lives on in the Ralph Ernst Fellowship which has been awarded to Flinders University researcher Dr Luke Grundy, whose research is focused on preventing side effects arising from treatment for prostate and bladder cancers.
This work, Dr Grundy says, is about “making cancer treatment more effective and improving quality of life”.
“There’s a common misconception that after you survive cancer you just return back to your old life. But in reality, life-saving cancer treatments commonly cause severe side effects that significantly impact your quality of life going forwards,” Dr Grundy says.
“With the dramatic improvements in early diagnosis and treatments for many cancers, attitudes are now shifting to focus not just on surviving cancer, but ensuring that patients living beyond cancer are not burdened by the consequences of their treatment.”
Up to 30 per cent of men who undergo chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy to treat bladder or prostate cancer will develop acute bladder pain and a severely overactive bladder, with around 10 per cent of them developing bladder pain so debilitating that cancer treatment must be prematurely stopped, “dramatically worsening” patient outcomes.
Dr Grundy will look to lower these rates, by investigating use of prophylactic treatments (preventative medicines) to prevent off-target bladder inflammation during radiotherapy for prostate cancer.
Furthermore, his work will also investigate whether nerve blocking agents – including targeted local anaesthetics and nerve blocking peptides – could be used to prevent bladder pain developing in patients treated for bladder cancer.
“Unfortunately, the vast majority of bladder cancer patients experience bladder pain and dysfunction following treatment, and for some patients that discomfort will become so severe that they can’t continue their treatment, which ultimately leads to having the bladder removed,” Dr Grundy says.
“But because we know what is going to cause bladder pain, we think we have a unique opportunity to prevent it from developing in the first place.
“We’re going to establish models of cancers and cancer treatments and screen a whole range of potential therapeutics, with the aim of running clinical trials in patients at Flinders Medical Centre in the next three years.
“We’re also looking to establish a database that identifies patients most at risk of developing side effects to bladder and prostate cancer treatment and establish patient support networks for those that have chronic issues.”
Dr Grundy is grateful to Ralph and Pixie for their support of research into men’s cancers through this fellowship.
“When I hear Ralph’s story, you can’t help but think about the legacy he’s creating,” Dr Grundy says.
“I’d like for the ‘new norm’ to not just be about surviving, but thriving after cancer.”