By David Sly
Many of South Australia’s brightest medical minds, steering global innovations that save lives, belong to those who also show the greatest compassion.
Professor Tim Hughes – Cancer Theme Leader at the SA Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) and Consultant Haematologist in the Division of Haematology at SA Pathology – has dedicated his career to fighting chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), a disease that proved fatal for most people diagnosed 20 years ago.
Now, about 80% of those who are diagnosed survive.
A profound connection and sense of devotion to those suffering with CML has driven Prof Hughes to find answers that can help those he has formed intimate bonds with during their treatment journey – and the results of his research breakthroughs have been outstanding.
“In the 1990s, I could never accept that a lot of my patients were dying. They would be doing OK on treatments for five or six years, and then die. I went to a lot of funerals. If that doesn’t motivate you to find a solution, I don’t know what will,” he says.
“Now, the results have been incredible. I get to meet the children of CML patients – and the grandchildren of patients. That has been one of the great pleasures of my work.”
Motivation drove Prof Hughes to unlock one of the most significant discoveries in the history of leukaemia research – the use of tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs). Outlining his methods with TKI therapy has ensured a system that can measure affected cells in blood more accurately, enabling a more detailed analysis of specific cancer-fighting drug development.
“It’s quite a remarkable change that we’ve seen in a short period,” he says, “but there is still a way to travel to beat this disease.”
Currently, Prof Hughes estimates that 80% of patients with CML beat the disease; of these, two thirds will remain on therapeutic drugs for the rest of their lives, but most importantly about 30% of patients can finish taking drugs for therapy and remain in remission.
His lingering concern is that 20% of patients still die of CML-related causes, and that drugs used for therapy are not ideal indefinite solutions. Recently, Prof Hughes’ team based at SAMRHI has pioneered a process to get patients off their TKIs, although this has significant adverse side-effects.
“We now need to take another big step. We made early leaps in fighting CML as the result of big collaborations, but the important work now is developing next generation drugs that are even more targeted and effective in beating the cancer.”
CML currently affects about 3000 patients a year in Australia, but the global impact of this disease is more alarming. By 2040, there are projected to be over three million people with CML worldwide, so Prof Hughes says a concerted global effort towards finding a complete a cure is imperative.
The iCMLf (International CML Foundation, for which Prof Hughes is the chairman) is making efforts to accelerate co-ordinating pockets of international research, to forge stronger collaborations between teams across the world that are separately making significant CML research developments. However, Prof Hughes says independent funds are required to speed this process.
As a result, and to mark 10 years of the iCMLf, Prof Hughes is part of a major fundraising and promotional event in late October – an expedition of 25 people, being a combination of doctors, researchers and several CML patients (some who are still taking drugs to suppress the leukeamia), that will climb to reach the 5800m summit of Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa.
“It’s a pretty clear message that we are all working together to reach the pinnacle,” says Prof Hughes. “For the Mt Kilimanjaro climb, we’re working outside our comfort zone – and that’s an appropriate metaphor, too. Without effort and commitment, you don’t achieve your goal.”
Over Easter, Prof Hughes walked the Great Ocean Road in Victoria as a training exercise, and he is busy appealing for donations towards the iCMLf fundraising goal of $100,000. He says this sum will keep supporting the application of CML advances from developed countries to developing nations. He has already seen great progress in Africa and India through 10 years of the foundation and hopes new funds will accelerate the process.
In October 2017, Prof Hughes won the prestigious GSK Award for Research Excellence for his work on CML, but he’s far from content with having played a major role in discovering a life-saving treatment. He now wants to beat the disease completely, and believes it is within reach.
“In 1993, I came to Adelaide to work specifically on this area of cancer research because I saw what was possible,” he says. “Now the ultimate result is tantalisingly close. I believe the pinnacle is within sight.”
To find out more details about Climb For A Cure, and to pledge financial support, visit the iCMLf website.
Industry in focus: Health
Throughout the month of April, the state’s health industry will be explored as part of I Choose SA.
South Australia’s health sector is among the best in the world, renowned for developing new and advanced technologies and research outcomes. Our health industry infrastructure is world-class, providing new pathways and job opportunities, as well as a growing potential for health tourism.
Visit I Choose SA to meet the people building business and industry in SA, and to find out how your choices make a difference to our state.