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Professor John Mattick believes this is the last generation that will be devastated by cancer. Speaking at the ACRF’s ‘Chairman’s Dinner’, in December 2004, Mattick, the Director of the Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) at the University of Queensland, outlined a number of key developments that could relegate cancer to an historical disease.

“There is every reason to be optimistic that we will be the last generation to be devastated by cancer,” said Mattick, attributing the rapid progress in knowledge about the disease to advanced research in the post-clinical era.

Mattick labelled cancer “the disease of the second half of the 20th century”, adding that we are only now beginning to understand its underlying genetic and molecular causes.

“A generation ago most cancer research was empirical, because the disease was not understood,” he said, describing the chemotherapies and radiation therapies developed at this time as “blunderbuss approaches aimed at killing growing cells, which retarded tumour growth but had many negative side effects.”

Mattick described cancer as an acquired genetic disease that can be partly inherited. He added that it can also be attributed to random damage to our genes throughout our lifetime — via mutations caused by chemicals, UV rays, carcinogens in smoke and cosmic radiation. This can result in inappropriate activity of particular genes — those that control the growth of our cells.

“The advent of gene cloning 30 years ago enabled us to identify the genes which are mutated in cancer. We now have a large catalogue of different genes that cause cancer or influence cancer progression in different types of cells and tissues. This has enabled us to determine the underlying molecular causes of cancer.

“These studies have led to a new generation of therapies, because we can now rationally develop strategies against these changes.”

Mattick praised the outstanding efforts of cancer research teams throughout Australia, as well as the support of organisations like the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF).

“The ACRF is fulfilling a critical role by funding the infrastructural platforms for this research, which is very difficult to obtain from other organisations, and which makes a lasting contribution to the battle,” he said, before detailing the incredible progress in targeted pharmaceutical treatments for dangerous cancers – including breast and lung cancer, various lymphomas and myelomas, a lethal form of kidney cancer, and melanoma, among others.

Mattick described three new drugs recently identified that knock out ‘rogue’ genes – Gleevac (an enzyme treatment for myeloid leukeamia), Bay 43 (which inhibits an enzyme active in untreatable renal cell carcinoma, and was developed in part by a researcher now based at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience in Brisbane) and Aressa (which targets a protein identified in patients with lung cancer which was not caused by smoking).

“In addition, there are almost one dozen new drugs and antibodies in the pipeline which target and focus on specific cancers and specific cancer cells.

“These new drugs are a result of research funded by the ACRF. All have been developed in the last few years, and are able to target particular features of particular cancers. Other treatments, including gene therapies and antibodies, are also in the pipeline and in some cases already approved for clinical treatment.

“The quality of life of patients suffering from these cancers can now be extended substantially.

“This is the new generation of targeted cancer treatments. It is genetic; it is genomic and it is at a cellular level. Critical targets have been identified and they are able to be blocked.”

Mattick described the new developments as “the tip of the iceberg and a portent of things to come,” adding that cancer will be able to be addressed and managed within the next 10-20 years. “The time when cancer was seen as a disease which terminates lives will have passed.”

According to Mattick, the niche role played by the ACRF in granting large, intercessional grants is critical to the ongoing progress of institutes like the IMB.

“There are a variety of agencies funding research, but the ACRF is funding infrastructure. This is the driving force behind these scientific breakthroughs. This type of funding is just not available elsewhere.”

One of the ACRF’s original grants to the IMB (in 1984) provided the Institute with the resources that were critical to their survival as a cancer research centre.

“That grant enabled us to grow, and we have just recently occupied a new Institute in a $100m research complex at the University of Queensland. This would not have happened without ACRF support,” said Mattick.

Key grants have been given to other researchers with equally dramatic effects. The ACRF grant to the John Curtin School of Medical Research led to a multi-million dollar national facility for mouse genetics and genomics, the key model system the IMB uses in the study of cancer.

In 2004, the IMB received another ACRF grant for cell imaging equipment – another much needed injection of support for basic cancer research.

Click here for Professor John Mattick’s bio.