Cancer Survivorship

Cancer is a disease that respects no anatomical boundaries, age or gender. The spectrum of resulting clinical problems encompasses work by all research groups at the O’Brien Institute, a Department of St Vincent’s Institute.

Treatment for cancer consists of surgery to remove the cancer and/or the lymph nodes to which the cancer spreads, or non-surgical treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy. The range of cancers for which radiotherapy is being used is ever expanding.

Unfortunately, there is unavoidable exposure to the surrounding normal cells in these treatments, often killing health cells causing permanent damage or injury that affects a patient’s quality of life. This includes the damage caused by removal of tumors and cancer cells. Repair requires tissue engineering solutions to create tissue (adipose research) that is sustained by an adequate blood supply (adipose biology research). In addition, changes in normal tissues caused by radiotherapy and chemotherapy may result in ongoing tissue contracture, pain, lymphoedema, and tissue breakdown causing significant disability, infection, and potentially life-threatening exposure of vital structures. The Foundation has supported the O’Brien institute in developing in-vitro models that mimic the dosage regimes administered to cancer patients, specifically focusing on the cell types that occur in the skin. Organs can also be damaged through treatment such as the heart or the liver. For example, to replace the cardiac cells damaged by radiation, which can cause premature heart attacks, the cardiac regeneration group have grown heart cells while the vascular biology group have grown liver cells in a dish.

Researchers at The O’Brien Institute have been supported by the Foundation to undertake research that has helped to unlock some of the secretes behind the crippling and clinically devastating adverse effects of radiotherapy. This has employed cutting-edge technology at the lab bench using clinical samples and cell experimentation. The techniques used have probed into the central workings of the cell and the RNA and DNA that becomes impaired as a result of the radiation damage. Importantly, using this information, the researchers in the lymphatic and adipose biology group have harnessed the therapeutic effects of fat-derived stem cells to reverse this profound radiation damage. This work not only has implications following cancer treatment, but also in tissue regeneration more broadly.