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Doorstop interview about childhood brain cancer research

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt talking at the Kids' Cancer Project about the Australian Government's investment into childhood brain cancer research. Minister Hunt also answers questions about the ACT Government's new cannabis legislation.

The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Former Minister for Health and Aged Care

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Just obviously first going to welcome all the stakeholders on behalf of the Kids’ Cancer Project. It’s been a really exciting three or four years for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month during September and really excited about the announcement today of national Childhood Brain Cancer Awareness Day.

It’s an amazing day to grow awareness of childhood cancer and understand what the families are going through. We’re very lucky to have several of our stakeholders here in childhood cancer research but also families and people that have experienced childhood cancer.
And it’s a wonderful opportunity to celebrate amongst that community on what we’ve been able to do.

We’re very excited about raising awareness and funds for childhood cancer and believe science is the solution for these children and they need our support.

So, to have a focus on brain cancer research and clinical trials, we’re very excited in the more recent years that the Government’s investment into zero childhood cancer, into the Genomics Mission, into the Brain Cancer Mission and into funding childhood cancer through the MRFF and Cancer Australia PdCCRS.

So, my job, Greg, is to say thank you very much for your commitment to child cancer in both raising awareness and committed funds.

But everyone in the room would understand that the diagnosis for people who go through brain cancer is not very good. The facts aren’t well known.

So the chance today to have a national Childhood Brain Cancer Awareness Day and raise awareness and funds for that and be able to commit to families and children that are going through this terrible disease is a fantastic thing to see.

I look forward to your ongoing support and further commitments to childhood cancer research.

Thanks very much to Owen and the Kids’ Cancer Project, to everybody here today.
I particularly want to acknowledge all of the parents who are here and who are represented today. Dustin, and he is, as I've said, the father you would want to have.

I saw him on his journey with Chloe and it was an agonising journey but he never gave up hope and he has never resiled from the determination to take action for other families and other children and other parents.

To Liz Connor Dawes, and Liz has, after the loss of her beautiful son Robert, raised literally millions and I think there were over 5000 at the recent Robert Connor Dawes Run.
To Scott, the father of Kai, and Scott and I were in contact as Kai was on his battle with DIPG.

Sadly, six months ago, that battle was lost.

But Scott was one of the drivers for today, for a national Children's Brain Cancer Awareness Day, along with others who were here and in particular, his first focus on DIPG, which is such an aggressive form of children's brain cancer.

And of course, to the parents of Isabella, together with the parents of Marcus, they created the Isabella and Marcus Foundation.

We have representatives from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute: Dr Misty Jenkins; we have Professor Doug Hilton, the head of this extraordinary, world-leading institution, which traces itself back through to Sir Macfarlane Burnet and Gustav Nossal and the discovery and development of venetoclax amongst others, the Children's Cancer Foundation, the Kids’ Cancer Project and Professor Dorothy Keefe from Cancer Australia amongst others.

So today ultimately is about beautiful young children such as Kai and Robert, such as Chloe and Isabella and Marcus, and it is about saving lives and protecting lives.

We know, in any one year, 100 Australian children are likely to be diagnosed with some form of brain cancer. Sadly, roughly 36 those will lose that battle and each one is an agonising journey.

We also know that in terms of DIPG, 20 children a year may be diagnosed and after two years, less than 10 per cent are expected to be alive.

And so, this is a great individual and a great national battle we’ve embarked upon. I know Dustin, when we worked together, we made the pledge and we have committed to the work on the brain cancer mission, the Australian Brain Cancer Mission, with $125 million.

But in addition to that, there's research being done on clinical trials, on diagnosis, on new pathways for treatment.

And I am delighted to announce today $2 million in research grants for childhood brain cancer.

Dr Misty Jenkins is leading her extraordinary team here at Walter and Eliza Hall, looking at immunotherapy pathways for children with brain cancer and in particular, with DIPG.

Professor Mat Dunn from the University of Newcastle, who is battling his own daughter’s brain cancer – and sadly he can’t be here today because of the health condition of his daughter – has been a recipient of a National Health and Medical Research Council grant for $600,000 for research into DIPG.

I’m also delighted to announce $5 million for clinical trials under the Medical Research Future Fund for childhood brain cancer.

This is about saving lives and protecting lives. This round will open on 15 November, and it will mean new hope for medical researchers to access funds. But much more importantly, for doctors such as Professor Jordan Hansford who’s here today, pathways to guide patients and parents to trials which might otherwise never have been accessible.

In short, more children will have a better chance of longer lives and saving their lives through these clinical trials.

And we hope they’ll lead not just to those children being helped, but ultimately to children around Australia and around the world having access to breakthrough new medicines. So at this moment, we're looking at a comprehensive Children's Cancer Centre in Sydney with $100 million.

Across the road, Peter MacCallum we'll have an $80 million national cellular immunotherapy centre, and in South Australia, we have over $60 million for the work in terms of breakthrough new proton beam radiation therapy.

So around the country, breakthrough treatments, breakthrough research. But right now, additional clinical trials to save lives and protect lives.

Dr Jenkins, if perhaps you could let us know about your immunotherapy, what it means for parents of children with brain cancer and how it can make a real difference.

Thank you. Thanks so much. I've spent my career researching a specialised group of immune cells called T cells.

T cells have the exquisite ability to specifically be able to kill cancer cells. To be able to repurpose and re-engineer a patient's own T cells to fight their own cancer has been one of the greatest advancements in cancer therapy that we've really seen in decades.

This approach called CAR T therapy has shown great promise in the advancement and treatment of blood cancers, and in fact, we've actually seen paediatric patients that have been completely cured of their leukaemia. And these advancements also offer hope to rarer cancers like in the brain.

We know brain cancer kills more children than any other disease. That's a pretty alarming statistic, and a diagnosis of brain cancer is truly, I think, probably one of the worst things that life could throw at a family.

I've devoted my laboratory here at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute to research the approach of applying immunotherapy – in particularly CAR T cells – in the treatment of brain cancer.

There have been a handful of clinical trials in adults which has shown that this approach has been safe and non-toxic, and we have already designed and are now testing receptors which recognise paediatric brain cancer in the lab.

We've shown that this can work in addition, so as soon now moving into preclinical testing, to hopefully one day to be able to take these discoveries through to the clinic.

This really is a pretty new cutting edge area of research, and we need to apply creative and novel tools because the current approaches are not working.

We haven't seen any new treatments for brain cancer in literally decades. So we really need to work together and outside the box to tackle this tricky and insidious disease.

And whilst immunotherapy will be one piece of the puzzle, we must also work very closely with our clinical collaborators and our research colleagues across a whole range of disciplines, including drug discovery and also neurobiology.

So tackling brain cancer will require a truly collaborative effort and will require multiple partnerships.

But I'm optimistic that our approach will go a long way in the treatment of brain cancer. One of the many reasons that advances to brain cancer treatment has lagged has been a lack of focused medical research funding, because we know that discoveries need dollars.

And the recent government and continued philanthropic support and commitment to fund rare cancers like brain cancer, will enable researchers like my team to make novel discoveries that will ultimately impact brain cancer patients and their families.

And that's really what's important. I want to thank all the wonderful family advocates, and many of you were in the room today, and philanthropic organisations like Isabella and Marcus, like the Doors Foundation, that have really worked tirelessly to bring this issue to the attention of Australia, and for the government, to resourcing and establishing the Australian Brain Cancer mission and for the ongoing support of Minister Hunt and Cancer Australia.

Thank you.

I just want to speak a little bit about how things have changed since I’ve been involved with brain cancer advocacy and research (inaudible) really, just trying to improve the situation for children who are diagnosed with brain tumours.

In 2017, I approached Greg about the statistics which I’ve discovered because my daughter was being treated for a brain tumour at the time and also we approached Greg along with the PM to talk about government funding which was inadequate at the time considering the size of the problem and really we were running out of treatment options; we were getting- just constantly getting told that, we’re not able to save your daughter I’m sorry and to hear that is very hard.

So we have no hope and since then, a lot has changed.

The Australian Brain Cancer Mission has been developed; there are a lot more research projects that are being funded; there are clinical trials available and that – what that means is for people that have been diagnosed now or being treated now, the survival rates and (inaudible) have actually improved but there is real reason to be optimistic and to believe that positive things can happen; that there may be a big breakthrough just around the corner; that it's only a matter of time until survival rates improve, until quality of life improves and we can stop children from dying from brain cancer.

Because it's the amount  brain cancer killing more children in Australia than any other disease. It's just completely unfair to watch a child go through that.

So I think whatever we can possibly do to improve that as soon as possible, we need to do.

And that's exactly what it Greg’s done by developing the Australian Brain Cancer Mission under his leadership is we’ve brought together a lot of other charities, a lot of other non-government organisations, philanthropists, to all chip in together to do whatever we can as a group, that's in a national effort to stop the suffering of our children.

So Cure Brain Cancer, as one of the partners in the mission. We've committed $20 million; the mission have already invested 4.3 in that.

So there's a lot of groups that are making their own investments all towards the same goal which is certainly great to see and it's only a matter of time before that becomes genuine progress and improvements in survival.

One last thing that I want to say is on behalf of Mat Dunn, who Greg mentioned couldn't get here today, you know.

It was absolutely shattering to hear from him that he's not going to be here because I can only imagine what he's actually going through knowing that he's at the hospital with his little girl who’s suffering from DIPG.

I just wanted to make the point that those are the positive things that have happened and we've sort of – we're facilitating the progress being made by the investments that we're all making in brain cancer research.

The fact still remains that we know – we understand very little about DIPG, the real biology of it.

So the more good research projects that we can get up and running to better understand this, to develop treatments that are more likely to be successful, the better for everybody and the sooner we'll be stopping the type of suffering that kids like Josie went through today.

So I’ll be taking your questions on the brain cancer mission and today's funding and then other matters after that.

Greg, before you became Health Minister, I don’t think any of the Government’s committed as much money to brain cancer as you have, which is wonderful and a credit to you.
But why – in that time, survival rates obviously haven't moved because there was no money to do research on (inaudible). So why do you think, as a country, we allowed brain cancer to become the forgotten cancer?

So I can't speak for the past. I can speak for my watch and my time that we’ve made this a national priority.

It was the first of our national missions in the Medical Research Future Fund and around the world, we have the equal of the best survival rates for brain cancer but around the world there hasn't been significant progress over the last three decades.

We've made extraordinary progress in areas such as leukaemia, breast cancer and prostate cancer. For me, the science was too difficult. Now, on our watch, in our time, we're saying we can invest the funds but we bring in scientists such as Dr Jenkins and others.

We know that we can make breakthroughs here in Australia that will help lead the world and help not just in Australia but around the world. So it's our time and it's our watch and we're investing the funds to make that difference.

The money announced today will no doubt go a long way, but brain cancer – DIPG in particular – would be the final frontier. I mean, it’s probably the most difficult of all brain cancers to try and treat.

So I know that there’s obviously the brain cancer mission and obviously a whole bunch of other funding coming from elsewhere, but there will need to be more in future. Is that something you’d be (inaudible)?

Oh absolutely. The – within the Medical Research Future Fund, there's the brain cancer mission which is $125 million, and there's also the rare cancers, rare diseases clinical trials. We've laid that out for 10 years and $600 million.

And this is the latest round, focused specifically on child brain cancer, and with a particular focus on DIPG. So there’s the $2 million announced today specifically for the DIPG, and the $5 million going forwards for new clinical trials.

But we'll keep going over the course of the next year, the next three years, the next decade, until we have a real cure and real hope for families.

Do you think Australians realise that brain cancer kills more children than any other cancer?

I think progressively through the work of amazing people such as Dustin, and Liz, and Scott, Isabella and Marcus's parents, and their now incredible leaders such as Owen and others.

You know, Owen – at this time it’s worth reflecting – Owen, I think back in 1999, scored the winning try for Australia at the World Cup. He’s now on a more important mission to score another try for Australia and that is to get each of these kids over the line.

That's his goal. That's our goal.

Mr Hunt, just looking at other issues – as a health minister, what’s your view on the cannabis laws that passed in the ACT yesterday?

Look, we don't support them on the basis that we know that there is a link between cannabis and mental health.

In particular bodies such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK have pointed out to a doubling in the likely rates of schizophrenia for frequent cannabis users, and a quadrupling in the rates of schizophrenia for children who start in the mid-teens using cannabis by the time and the age of 26.

Having said that, we have no plans to override the laws but the enforcement of the laws at federal level is a matter for the Attorney-General.

Why not override the laws like you did in 2013 with the same sex marriage legislation passed in the ACT?

At this stage we've yet to fully see what is in them, but I'm sending out a health position.

I'll let the Attorney-General speak on the legal position. But from a health perspective, one quarter of all Australians who are in some form of drug and alcohol treatment are there because of a link with cannabis.

And cannabis has very significant health impacts, and in particular mental health impacts.
And so we're setting out a clear position that from a health perspective, as a government, this is not something that we regard as being safe or benign or desirable.

In your view in the legislation, are there enough safeguards in health perspective?

Well, we’ve yet to see a final copy of the legislation. I was speaking with the Attorney-General only this morning, the Commonwealth Attorney-General, and at this point it's unclear what exactly is in and out, and it seems to have been done with a great lack of care and consideration.

Maybe one for the Attorney-General, but I’ll see if you can answer it anyway. Could people still be charged with cannabis possession under federal law with this passing-

I’ll respectfully leave that for the Attorney-General.

No worries. And what's your view on the abortion bill for the New South Wales parliament?

Again, that's a matter for the New South Wales parliament.

Just a quick question for you, Misty. I know you'll have the answer. DIPG is notoriously difficult to treat from its location in the brain…

That’s right.

Do you think T-cell therapy holds the key to treating DIPG?

As I said, I don't think it – I hope so. I think it will. I think immunotherapy is going to play a really big part in the treatment of DIPG.

The nature of the tumour itself and its location and in a place like the brain stem which controls our breathing and our swallowing, you can't surgically remove it, it's resistant to chemotherapy, radiation gives these kids an extra few months but there’s really little other hope.

So whether or not immunotherapy is the magic bullet on its own or if it's used in conjunction with other approaches like small molecules and other types of medicines, I think that will be the way – that will be the future of DIPG treatment.

I will actually – that reminds me. I'll finish with something else that’s related. Somewhere in the world virtually every day, there is a breakthrough in cancer treatment.

We want that somewhere in the world to be Australia for childhood brain cancer, and in particular for DIPG.

And we have a great tradition in terms of medical research here at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, and if they can add to the work of Macfarlane Burnet, Gustav Nossal, and the work on venetoclax, and maybe one day bring home a Nobel Prize, you couldn't be more hopeful – not the prize that matters, it's the individual lives of children.

Thank you very much.

Thank you.

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