At the 2019 annual Cancer Research Awards Night, we had the pleasure of announcing the inaugural Sally Crossing AM Award for an Outstanding Achievement in Cancer Research. The award recognises an outcome achieved by a cancer researcher previously funded by Cancer Council, with strong consumer involvement, which has improved the lives of those affected by cancer.
Entries were invited from researchers who have received funding from Cancer Council in the last 10 years. And, with $50,000 towards their research up for grabs, the calibre of applications was exceptional.
After a tense few minutes wondering if the winner would be able to make it through the #SydneyStorm in time for the announcement, the award went to a very humble and surprised Professor Murray Norris AM from the Children’s Cancer Institute.
Dramatically improving survival for the most common childhood cancer
When Professor Norris started his research career, he was immediately struck by how little research was being conducted into children’s cancers. He was especially concerned about how hard it was for oncologists to predict relapse in patients with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, the most common type of cancer affecting Australian children.
Leukaemia treatment typically involves a series of anti-cancer drugs that aim to kill off the cancer cells. Oncologists knew when a child with leukaemia relapsed, this was due to cancer cells that had either spread, or become resistant to treatment. Once relapse occurred, their chance of survival was significantly lower.
Professor Norris realised that clinicians desperately needed a test that was sensitive enough to detect even the tiniest number of leukaemia cells in a patient and fast enough to provide immediate feedback on treatment effectiveness.
With seed funding from Cancer Council, Professor Norris went on to develop the “Minimal Residual Disease” test. Unlike existing clinical tests at that time, this test could pick up 1 cancer cell among 1 million healthy cells. Further funding from Cancer Council enabled the MRD test to be refined and optimised for use in a national clinical trial for children diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.
Throughout the journey, Professor Norris and his team were supported by input by consumer Jack Kasses who had experienced first-hand what it was like to be a parent to a child with cancer.
The MRD test helped give clinicians enough information to decide whether to continue treatment as usual or embark on more aggressive treatment for those children where remaining leukaemia cells were detected. At the start of the clinical trial, the survival rate for children with high risk leukaemia was about 35%. At the end, results showed that the survival rate had doubled to 70%.
Following these astounding results, Minimal Residual Disease testing has become standard practice for all children with this disease in Australia. A truly outstanding outcome.
In memory of Sally Crossing AM
The award was made possible through the generosity of the Belalberi Foundation, a foundation established by the family of the late Sally Crossing AM (1946-2016). Sally was a pioneer and tireless advocate for patient-centred medicine and the first consumer appointed to the Cancer Council Board. She advocated strongly and continuously for training in consumer advocacy – and for the inclusion of consumers in research.
Cancer Council NSW and Cancer Voices NSW acknowledge the extraordinary support of the Belalberi Foundation and the Crossing family in conferring this award.
Professor Norris continues to work on improving outcomes for children with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. His current research project is proudly funded by Cancer Council NSW. Learn more about it.