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Team of the month: Medical Oncology Department, Wollongong Hospital

By Linda Music

Exciting changes are happening in medical oncology across Wollongong and Shoalhaven hospitals. Driven by the Head of the Medical Oncology Department, Dr Lorraine Chantrill, these changes are seeing an increased focus on research with the aim of improving outcomes for cancer patients in the future.

Dr Chantrill, who has been in the position for just a year, explains that in the past, regional and rural cancer centres have had limited scope for research due to massive patient loads.

Dr Lorraine Chantrill, Head of Medical Oncology Department, Wollongong Hospital,

“With 1000 new cancer patients a year in this region, medical oncologists can see up to 40 patients per day, leaving little-to-no room for clinicians to take part in research,” Dr Chantrill explains.

“There’s always competing interest between serving the patient population and making sure we embed research into our work.

“In order for that to happen, we need to work with the hospital to improve staffing. We’re raising awareness that research needs to be an embedded party of clinical practice rather than something you do in your spare time,” she explains

One of the ways this is being addressed is by providing opportunities for research careers for doctors. To that end, the University of Wollongong will soon offer a PhD program in medical oncology which will give medical oncologists time for both clinical work and research.

Part of embedding research into the hospital also means offering clinical trials. Indeed, one of the goals of the medical oncology department is to increase the number of clinical trials available to people living in the Wollongong and Shoalhaven region.

Dr Chantrill acknowledges that they need to be innovative as traditional clinical trials are not always feasible for the population.

“We are looking at interesting studies into repurposing old medicines such as aspirin and cholesterol- lowering drugs in cancer patients to see if they make a difference to patients.”

One trial that Dr Chantrill is keen to get running in the region is the Oxtox study. The study involves researching how an existing drug (Ibudilast) can reduce the side-effects of a commonly-used drug for colorectal cancer (Oxaliplatin).

“We have a lot of cancer patients in Wollongong who receive this drug so I’m keen for our department to offer this clinical trial,” she said.

Oxaliplatin, the chemotherapy drug of choice for bowel cancers can result in debilitating toxicity damaging the nerves of the hands and feet. Unfortunately, this damage happens quite early and can be permanent.

Studies using animal models have shown that when given with oxaliplatin, the drug, Ibudilast can prevent this side effect meaning that more oxaliplatin can be tolerated.

“If we can make cancer treatment more tolerable, we usually get better cancer outcomes because people are able to have more of the chemotherapy,” explains Dr Chantrill.

Repurposing existing drugs is not in the interests of commercial enterprises which is why Dr Chantrill believes the onus falls on doctors to conduct these trials

“There is no commercial benefit when we repurpose existing drugs. No one is going to make a lot of money from this research but the potential to improve the quality of life for patients is huge. So as researchers and clinicians it is our obligation to do these studies.”

Fortunately, the medical oncology team comprising six medical oncologists, advanced trainees, junior and senior physicians, nurses and allied health professionals are keen to incorporate research into the department.

“Every person in our department is asking what research they can do and how they can contribute to the way the department operates,” Dr Chantrill explains.

“Ultimately, investing time, energy and funds into research pays dividends to our present and future cancer patients in the form of improved quality of life and life expectancy.”