Research Report 2004

Since the inception of CIKA twenty four years ago, we have been very committed to funding research at the Royal Children’s’ Hospital.   Late in 2003 we were made aware that there was a shortfall in funding for research at the Molecular Oncology Laboratory. At the November CIKA meeting the committee considered a pres­entation by Dr Elizabeth Algar of an overview of the work being under­taken by the lab under her direction, and the funding needed to ensure its continuation in the short term. The CIKA committee agreed to fund this important work in conjunction with the Leukeamia Association of the Royal Children’s Hospi­tal (LARCH). Detailed below is an overview of that research. ­

­ The Molecular Oncology Library provides a molecular diagnostic testing service to assist in the clinical man­agement of solid tumour and leukemia patients. The aim of the laboratory is to enable paediatric cancer patients to benefit from the application of “state of the art” technologies in the management of their disease. This involves using current knowledge of the chromo­somal and genetic changes that have arisen in a can­cer cell to aid accurate disease diagnosis and to give an idea of disease prognosis. This information is re­quired in order for optimal therapies to be given. Knowledge of the chromosomal or genetic changes in a cancer cell, identified at diagnosis, also provide a tool to distinguish the cancer cell from other normal cells. This is done in the laboratory using a technology known as the polymerase chain reaction or PCR, and has an especially important application in the monitor­ing of leukemia during therapy.

It is likely in the future that new therapies for the treat­ment of both solid tumors and leukaemias will be based on targeting the genetic alterations that are unique to cancer cells and that are not present in normal cells. It is clear that molecular oncology, or understanding and identifying the genetic changes in cancer, will play an increasingly important role in cancer diagno­sis and treatment.

The head of the Molecular Oncology laboratory is Dr. Elizabeth Algar. The only salaried staff member of the laboratory, Dr. Algar has had fourteen years of post-doctoral experience in the area of paediatric cancer genetics. She is one of few people in Austra­lia with a breadth of experience in this specialized field. In 2001 she initiated the transformation of the Molecular Oncology laboratory from a basic research laboratory into one providing both applied research and diagnostic testing for paediatric cancers and can­cer syndromes. Her vision is to see the laboratory develop into a specialized labo­ratory providing molecular genetic testing for the paediatric cancer population in Victoria initially, and ulti­mately for the Australian population.

However, for its continued operation the Molecular Oncology laboratory is heavily reliant on philan­thropic funds. This is particularly acute in its present phase. An enormous amount of ground work has been put in to get the laboratory to its present op­erational state and to apply for NATA accreditation status (which will hopefully be granted this year). Whilst the laboratory is currently supported through CIKA and LARCH at its present funding and staffing levels, the laboratory cannot expand the range of tests it can offer nor improve result delivery times. In addition, the current situation limits the opportunity that Dr. Algar might otherwise have to seek new potential sources of funding. Additional staffing and financial security to enable long-term planning are desperately needed.

Dr David Ashley,
Head of Clinical Haematology & Oncology.