Besides the many remarkable research breakthroughs that have put the Flinders Centre for Innovation in Cancer (FCIC) on the world map, its greatest legacy is found in life’s smallest gestures.
“It's a nice place to work but it's also a nice place to see our patients, to be there for them,” says Professor Michael Michael, a research scientist who leads the cancer research program at the Flinders Health and Medical Research Institute.
“Every day I'm in the lift with patients and I get a chance to talk to them; you can see from the expression on their faces how they're feeling. And that's a huge motivator for us as researchers,” he says.
Michael, who chairs the Flinders Foundation Research Committee, has been involved in the FCIC from infancy, playing a role in the Foundation’s fundraising campaign that included securing a $1 million grant from the Australian Cancer Research Foundation.
“The real reason we needed the Centre was actually for the patients – it’s really important for cancer patients to be cared for in an integrated centre, it serves them really well.
“For us as researchers, we used to have several disparate groups all doing their own thing. We all talked, of course, but being able to bring people together and to merge our activity with the medical oncologists was fundamental and that's what the Centre has done – it’s created many synergies that have allowed us to develop a new variety of research programs.
“If there's a strength that we have within South Australia, it's the fact that we integrate our research well with local clinical activities and that wouldn’t have been as easy without the FCIC.”
Molecules and eureka moments
Owned by the Flinders Foundation and co-located within the precinct shared by Flinders Medical Centre and Flinders University, the FCIC has been home to significant research discoveries since it opened a decade ago.
This includes a bowel cancer screening test that won a prestigious Eureka Prize in 2017, and a breakthrough on the link between red meat and cancer that was pivotal in the World Health Organisation’s 2015 classification of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans.
Michael’s world-leading work on microRNA molecules, started before the FCIC opened, was able to expand into new diagnostic tests and research to understand how different diets protect or predispose people to bowel cancer, once researchers were united under the one roof.
Other big breakthroughs include Emeritus Professor Pam Sykes’ work with radiation and her prostate cancer collaboration with Dr Ganessan Kichenadasse, and a “watch and wait” clinical trial to determine rectal cancer recurrence that predicts whether surgery is actually needed post-treatment.
There’s also been a series of behavioural science-based studies, including work with the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program that has led to an increase in uptake, educating new migrants to be cancer aware, and various skin cancer campaign initiatives.
Professor Chris Karapetis has also advanced his high-impact precision medicine research that predicts the likelihood of successful treatment, providing patients don’t have a common bowel cancer mutation.
“There’s a ridiculously expensive family of drugs, such as Cetuximab, which are used to treat bowel cancer, but Chris showed that if you have a particular mutation you’ll put the patient through an unnecessary therapy and charge the health system for something that's not going to work.
“That was one of the earliest examples of what's called precision medicine, where you can tailor a therapy to peoples’ gene activity. That finding has probably saved the Australian health system well over $100 million in the last decade.”
Other studies currently underway include blood tests during treatment to gauge how patients metabolise the drug, thereby eliminating the one-size-fits-all approach to chemotherapy, and a growing body of research on brain cancer using the Flinders-run SA Neurological Tumour Bank.
There’s also the FCIC’s unique survivorship focus, which has translated research on cancer survivors’ unmet needs into tangible outcomes – this is also the inspiration for the new ground-floor Wellness Centre inside the four-storey glass atrium.
Last but not least, there’s the breadth of research currently undertaken – from Professor Janni Petersen’s Nature Metabolism-published research that uses yeast as a model to understand how cells work – to Associate Professor Luke Selth’s more clinically-oriented prostate cancer epigenetics.
“Our work here is really diverse, and that's what's great about what we do,” Michael says.
“We have medics doing their thing with the patients, we have the lab rats like myself, we have public health experts, data collectors and health economists bringing everything together.
“We can’t do it all in isolation, and that’s what the integrated strength of our Centre is all about.”
The future of cancer research
Whilst the Centre’s initial concept was to investigate solid tumours of the breast, prostate, gut, ovary, lung and liver, Michael says the scope these days is far broader, and will continue to grow.
“We’ve always had strong research groups in blood cancers at Flinders, and we’ve recently recruited some fantastic researchers for multiple myeloma but there are also other diseases that we want to start tackling, including pancreatic cancers.
“We’ve got to go where the successes haven't been so great and tackle the hard questions, the hard challenges. And I think we're in a good position to do that.”