Investigations into what can be done for cancer patients before and after cancer treatment to improve health outcomes is the focus of two new research projects to receive Cancer Society funding.
The Cancer Society of New Zealand today announced a $1.8 million boost for cancer research, with its funding of four research projects and three post-doctoral fellowships in its 2023 National Research Grant Round.
Associate Professor Anna Miles from the University of Auckland will evaluate the use of Expiratory Muscle Strength Training (EMST) for patients with head and neck cancer following radiation treatment.
There has been a significant increase in head and neck cancers in New Zealand in the last 20 years with 80-90% of cancers caused by Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). While treatments are often lifesaving, almost all patients who receive radiation treatment for their head and neck cancer will have some degree of permanent swallowing and voice change with a significant impact on their long-term quality of life.
EMST has been used for respiratory and swallow rehabilitation for neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Assoc Prof Miles’ study will assess if this easy-to-use and cost-effective device is effective in achieving better health outcomes for head and neck cancer patients.
“We have had really positive outcomes in swallowing and cough function using EMST in people with Parkinson’s disease. This holds great hope for people after chemoradiation for head and neck cancer. It’s a simple but motivating programme, you can do it at home, and you get to see your improvements each week which really helps you to keep going!” she says.
Fellow Auckland researcher, Dr Hanna van Waart, has received a post-doctoral fellowship to develop ‘prehabilitation’ programmes for people with cancer.
Dr van Waart heads the prehabilitation in cancer research group with Dr Marta Seretny, anaesthetist and researcher. They focus on prehabilitation, the phase between cancer diagnosis and surgery, which has the potential to improve current health and overall functioning to better withstand upcoming treatments. In a collaborative research team, patients, healthcare providers and researchers join forces to co-design ‘prehab’ programmes.
“The moment someone receives a cancer diagnosis can be very overwhelming, with many things happening at the same time. Until the wait for surgery starts. Prehabilitation can help guide this wait, while preparing oneself for surgery and the upcoming treatments,” said Dr Seretny.
“It can include exercise, dietary, and psychosocial interventions. While historically rest and outright inactivity were recommended for patients with cancer, it is now evident that exercise can be medicine by alleviating side effects such as fatigue and nausea. Each type of cancer comes with its own challenges and needs.
“We therefore undertake participatory research in which we integrate the researcher’s theoretical knowledge with the real-world knowledge of patients. Together we are co-designing tailored and thereby potentially more effective prehabilitation interventions.”
Cancer Society of New Zealand Research Manager, Dr Nicole Stanton says it is particularly exciting to see two research topics amongst this year’s recipients that explore advancements in supportive care for cancer patients.
“We’re very excited to fund more supportive care projects in the 2023 National Research Grant Round, as these projects have clear pathways to improving the quality of life of people with cancer. We received many high-quality applications this year, and I’m thrilled to see a wide variety of research projects, and researchers, funded,” she said.
Other projects receiving Cancer Society funding include those led by Dr Arthur Morley-Bunker (University of Otago, Christchurch), Professor Zimei Wu (University of Auckland) and Dr Glen Reid (University of Otago).
Dr Morley-Bunker’s goal is to improve clinical diagnostic tools that lead to advanced detection of patients with possible genetic predisposition to colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome), and patients who will respond to immunotherapies. His research will apply digital pathology and artificial intelligence to evaluate cancer tissue to provide a deeper analysis of tumour features that are not easily observed with the human eye.
Professor Wu is looking to develop a therapy that may help eradicate triple-negative breast cancer, based on delivering a drug ‘nano-cocktail’ that is directed to tumour cells and in particular the cancer stem cells or ‘bad seeds’ often left behind by conventional therapy. The nano-cocktail will be optimised using advanced patient-derived tumour models to facilitate the clinical translation of the research.
Dr Reid is seeking to understand how rare drug-tolerant cells emerge during cancer treatment, testing out his prediction that dying cells send out signals that promote the emergence of these therapy evaders. He hopes that with greater understanding we can potentially block this process using readily available and cheap anti-inflammatory drugs to ultimately improve outcomes for lung cancer patients.
Post-doctoral fellowships have also been awarded to Dr Alistair Brown (Victoria University of Wellington) who is planning to develop a cutting-edge synthetic biology platform; and Dr Olivia Burn (Malaghan Institute of Medical Research) who is looking at a unique mRNA vaccine approach to enhance the effectiveness of immunotherapy in liver cancer.
The National Research Grant Round 2024 is now open. This year, the Cancer Society is accepting applications for Post-Doctoral Fellowships and PhD Scholarships.