New bowel cancer chair says a treatment revolution is on its way

14 May 2018

Bowel cancer treatment is set to be transformed by technology, says Professor Mark Molloy, the University of Sydney's first chair to specialise in the disease.

Professor Mark Molloy

Professor Mark Molloy is the inaugural Lawrence Penn Chair of Bowel Cancer Research.

Professor Mark Molloy, the University of Sydney’s newly appointed Lawrence Penn Chair of Bowel Cancer Research, believes cancer treatment is on the brink of a revolution.

The biochemist is the inaugural appointee to the role, based at the Kolling Institute at Royal North Shore Hospital. The chair was established thanks to $6.4 million in funding from Bowel Cancer Australia, plus an additional $4 million in support from the University.

Professor Molloy’s focus is on molecular analysis, which can improve understanding of tumour biology and help clinicians make decisions about treatment. It is an area of research that could have a profound impact on the care of cancer patients.

“There is no doubt that technology is driving a big revolution in clinical care,” Professor Molloy says.

One example of this technological transformation is the use of mass spectrometers – sophisticated weighing devices that allow researchers to determine the molecular make-up of various substances. With the help of two new mass spectrometers soon to be installed at the Kolling Institute, Professor Molloy and his team will be able to analyse the molecular features of proteins and metabolites in individual tumours, in order to tailor treatment pathways according to the needs of each patient.

"When combined with genomic analysis, this gives us a more complete molecular picture of bowel cancer and polyps, which is essential to better understand prevention and treatment strategies," Professor Molloy says.

There is no doubt that technology is driving a big revolution in clinical care.
Professor Mark Molloy

Mass spectrometers could also be used to monitor medication levels in a patient’s system, allowing clinicians to deliver a dose precisely calibrated to suit the individual. “Currently those decisions are generally based on BMI [body mass index],” says Professor Molloy. “But people metabolise these drugs differently based on genetics … By applying molecular analysis techniques to blood samples, the oncologist could potentially adjust the medication levels up or down in a more precise and personalised way.”

The goal is to find ways of integrating molecular analysis into everyday patient care. Professor Molloy envisages that within the next five years clinical teams working with bowel cancer patients could include a molecular scientist.

“Currently these multidisciplinary teams discuss imaging, surgery, approaches to chemotherapy and so on,” he says. “I’d like to see clinicians also asking how molecular analysis could help add to the fuller picture.”

More than 4000 Australians die from bowel cancer every year, which makes it the second biggest cancer killer in the nation (after lung cancer). But 90 percent of cases can be treated successfully when detected early.

Lawrence and Richard Penn

Bowel cancer survivor Lawrence Penn and his son, Richard Penn, patron of Bowel Cancer Australia

The Lawrence Penn Chair of Bowel Cancer Research is named after one of Australia’s oldest bowel cancer survivors. Former air force and Qantas pilot Lawrence Penn, 95, was diagnosed with the disease when he was in his sixties. It was detected and treated early, allowing him to enjoy an active, healthy retirement with his wife of 70 years.

Lawrence's son, Richard Penn, is the patron of Bowel Cancer Australia and has provided great support towards establishing the chair.

Despite bowel cancer’s prevalence in Australia, the disease struggles to attract the same level of funding as other common cancers. Julien Wiggins, the CEO and executive director of Bowel Cancer Australia, says this is partly because people find it a difficult disease to discuss. “It’s a conversation killer,” he says.

Bowel Cancer Australia hopes its support of a chair at the University will drive crucial research as well as raise awareness about the disease.

“The establishment of this chair demonstrates our commitment to funding leading-edge research, raising the profile of bowel cancer nationally and making real change happen for those affected by the disease,” Mr Wiggins says. 

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