It’s our party: 40 years of research

30 Sep 2016

At the anniversary celebration of Children’s Cancer Institute, Executive Director Professor Michelle Haber AM reflected on the journey to one day curing children’s cancer.

“Good evening and welcome to the Honourable Dame Marie Bashir AD CVO, our founders Jack Kasses OAM and John Lough OAM, the Honourable Matt Thistlethwaite MP, Ladies Committee members, Apex Club members (especially those involved in helping to found this organisation), ladies and gentlemen.

It is my great pleasure to welcome you to the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the founding of the Institute. This very special event is an opportunity to thank you, our loyal long-standing supporters, for the 40 years of progress we have made towards one day curing every child with cancer.

Where it all started

In 1975, Jack and Annette Kasses and John and Margaret Lough each had a child diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. At the time, the only place in Australia treating children for cancer was a converted military hut here in Sydney at Prince of Wales Hospital, just up the road. The survival rates at that time for children with cancer were less than 50%; Jack’s daughter Helen survived, but sadly John’s son Robbie died of his disease.

Jack and John decided these statistics were not good enough and were determined to change this dismal outcome. They decided Australia needed dedicated research to identify improved treatments for all children with cancer. Their commitment, dedication and vision are our foundation story. Their tireless effort in fundraising with The Apex Foundation generated over $1.3M in the first year of the ‘Help a Kid Make It’ campaign, an amount that today is the equivalent of $7.8M. Truly remarkable!

These funds were used by our founding organisation, The Children’s Leukaemia and Cancer Foundation, which started off in Jack and Annette’s living room in Coogee, to build and then to open in 1984 our own laboratories. Named at that time as the Children’s Leukaemia and Cancer Research Unit, the forerunner of today’s Children’s Cancer Institute.

First researchers

I was very privileged to start working at the fledgling Institute as the inaugural post-doc under the supervision of Professor Bernard Stewart, along with two other scientists, Murray Norris, then a PhD student and Maria Kavallaris, then a pathology technician. As they say, “that was the start of a beautiful friendship” as Maria, Murray and I, together with Glenn Marshall who joined us a few years later, discovered that we shared a mutual passion to work towards one day curing children’s cancer, that persists through to today.

When the laboratories of Children’s Cancer Institute opened 32 years ago, the idea that we would one day contribute directly to curing childhood cancer was just a hope and an aspiration. Today, 8 out of 10 children survive their cancer and it is medical research that has made this difference; and it’s because of the dream, the contribution and the commitment of Jack, John and so many other parents and supporters that Children’s Cancer Institute has been able to be part of this success story.

Montage of historical photos

We are on the brink of launching the largest single initiative ever undertaken for children with cancer in Australia, the Zero Childhood Cancer national child cancer Personalised Medicine Program.

Personalised medicine

In many ways, the Zero Childhood Cancer Program is the culmination of the vision of our founders Jack Kasses and John Lough. It recognises that to cure every child we need to develop tailored treatments to target each child’s individual cancer. Over the past two years we have been working in partnership with clinicians at the Kids Cancer Centre at Sydney Children’s Hospital to establish the Program, and the pilot study is now open, with already 27 children enrolled, more than we had ever anticipated, due to demand from clinicians and families. At completion of this pilot, a national clinical trial of the program will open next year.

On the Zero Childhood Cancer Program, children at highest risk of treatment failure from around Australia will have their tumour or blood samples sent to Children’s Cancer Institute to be analysed biologically and genetically in great depth. The specific genetic changes that drive the cancer’s growth will be defined. Then we will empirically determine which drugs actually have the greatest likelihood of killing that individual child’s cancer cells, by growing the cancer cells in our laboratories and in our biological models, and testing hundreds of potential drugs and drug combinations to identify those drugs most likely to be effective for treating that child’s cancer.

This program, centred at Children’s Cancer Institute, and in partnership with Kids Cancer Centre, will involve every major children’s cancer research and clinical care facility in the country, ultimately offering this technology to every Australian child with high risk cancer, and the program also involves collaboration with research leaders in the USA and Europe.

Forty years ago, when Jack and John first identified the need for Children’s Cancer Institute, I don’t know that anyone involved could ever really have hoped to be at this point, at this moment in time, just 40 years later. Their vision, and that of so many parents who have been the driving force behind the ever-upward trajectory of growth and success of the Institute over all these years, has brought us here today and I acknowledge them here tonight, and each of you who has been part of this journey.

It is with their support, and that of each of you in this room tonight that we believe we will get there, we will find a cure for every child with cancer –  and that it’s not a matter of if we’ll cure cancer, it’s when.

Thank you.”

Read the story of our small beginnings.

Top image: (L to R) The Honourable Dame Marie Bashir AD CVO, Jack Kasses OAM, Professor Michelle Haber AM and John Lough OAM