NZBCF marks World Cancer Day with grants to improve knowledge and treatment of local cancers 

February 4, 2015


Today, World Cancer Day, the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation announced the winners of its research funding contest for studies based on New Zealand’s breast cancer patient registers, awarding six grants for pilot studies to researchers from Auckland, Waikato, Christchurch and Dunedin.


“When we launched the contest last October, we had high hopes that researchers would come up with creative questions about how we currently treat our women with breast cancer, and how we can do better,” said (Mrs) Van Henderson, chief executive of the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation. “That’s exactly what we got – the winning studies will answer important questions about how to reduce recurrence, whether we’re making the most effective use of expensive medical tests, the links between obesity and breast cancer, and how exercise might improve breast cancer survival for some women.”


Mrs Henderson said the NZBCF’s team of medical and scientific reviewers was impressed with the quality of the entries.


Radiation oncologist Melissa James from Christchurch Hospital will investigate the impact of radiation treatment on triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), which is often hard to treat. The study will compare outcomes around the country for patients who receive radiation versus those who do not. “Overseas studies have reached conflicting conclusions about the role of radiation treatment for triple negative breast cancer,” Dr James said. “This study will help us understand the impact of radiation treatment on outcomes for patients with TNBC here in New Zealand.”


Also in Christchurch, oncologist Bridget Robinson will lead a study comparing body mass index (BMI) data against tumour characteristics. It is now widely accepted that obesity is associated with increased risk of developing breast cancer and with poorer outcomes. However, the relationship between obesity and breast cancer is complex, Dr Robinson says, with other factors playing a part. “Many studies have shown increasing physical exercise may improve survival of early breast cancer,” she says. “In addition to discovering associations between obesity and tumour characteristics, we aim to establish biomarkers for obesity that can be used in a future study to help define which women will benefit from exercise interventions to improve their breast cancer survival.”


Dr Fraser Welsh from Waikato Hospital will investigate breast cancer recurrence in patients undergoing sentinel node biopsy (SNB), a surgical procedure that determines whether cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. The study will examine patient records in the Auckland and Waikato registers, comparing biopsy results with tumour types, treatments and outcomes with a view to guiding future decisions on treatment to prevent recurrence.


Dr Henry Kwok at Middlemore Hospital will look at the role of MRI in evaluating patients with lobular breast cancer. MRI is used routinely in lobular breast cancer, but it’s a costly test that some DHBs struggle to provide on a timely basis, and some doctors suspect it may not make a difference to patient outcomes in lobular breast cancer. Dr Kwok’s study will compare the accuracy of MRI against other tests for cancer staging, and long term outcomes for patients with and without MRI.


Dr Reena Ramsaroop at North Shore Hospital will lead a project to enhance the breast cancer patient registers by adding historical data about lobular carcinoma in situ, a pre-cancerous condition that researchers believe plays a more significant role in the development of invasive cancers than previously thought.


At Otago University, Associate Professor Mik Black, who specialises in the development of statistical methods for analysing clinical and genomic data, will head a pilot study comparing treatment outcomes across different tumour subgroups for patients with high and low BMI, using new analytical approaches that will form efficient, reusable tools for future analyses of the patient registers. 


Grants awarded in the contest total $50,000, and recipients will be in a strong position to submit proposals mid-year for larger studies, and a share of a $200,000 funding pool, based on these pilots.


The NZ Breast Cancer Foundation funds all four breast cancer patient registers – Auckland, Waikato, Wellington and Christchurch – and is currently in the process of consolidating them into a national register with the support of the Ministry of Health. The registers were founded with the aim of tracking treatment and outcomes for New Zealand women diagnosed with breast cancer, allowing researchers and clinicians to assess treatment effectiveness, to monitor regional and demographic variations, and to benchmark against national or international best practice. In future, the registers will be increasingly used in conjunction with tissue banks, helping researchers to better understand tumour genomics and the implications for diagnosis, treatment and outcomes.