By Delaine Smith, ALLG CEO.
The ALLG Discovery Centre is an innovative state-of-the-art facility that holds blood samples collected from consenting patients all around Australia, who have been diagnosed with haematological malignancies.
The Discovery Centre provides researchers with access to a greater collection of tissue samples and enables collaboration by research groups to conduct larger scale studies.
Translational research plays a crucial role in facilitating research into blood cancers by underpinning our understanding of biological processes that lead to the development of these cancers. Research also is needed to investigate why some patients respond differently to others when given the same treatments and what treatment strategies will be more effective for patients with blood cancers.
The Australasian Leukaemia and Lymphoma Group (ALLG) was the first cancer collaborative group to embark on biobanking, with the establishment of the National Leukaemia and Lymphoma Tissue Bank over 12 years ago. Recently renamed the Discover Centre, the facility is an essential and irreplaceable resource that underpins translational research into blood cancers in Australia.
The Discovery Centre is located at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane and acts a depository of samples both from clinical trials patients and from non-trials patients. The Centre is underpinned by the clinical research network of the ALLG and supports both trials related research and independent blood cancer research. Tissue samples stored include peripheral blood, bone marrow, tumour tissue, saliva and buccal smears. Samples are used for correlative studies associated with specific clinical trials, and are available for laboratory studies undertaken by ALLG members and independent researchers.
Initially a joint endeavour of the ALLG and the Leukaemia Foundation of Australia (LFA), the biobank was pioneering among clinical trials cooperative groups in Australia, many of which continue to struggle with the logistics of systematic tissue collection for trials patients now a requirement for many studies. The primary purpose of the Discovery Centre is to close the missing link between patient outcomes, clinical trials and laboratory research giving rise to fundamental scientific insights into disease biology and treatment outcomes.
The ALLG Discovery Centre Director, Assoc/Prof Paula Marlton, comments: “The ALLG Discovery Centre has supported 52 clinical trials, and has stored 23,108 blood specimens – it is critical for future scientific discoveries and cure breakthroughs.”
The recent explosion in sequencing of cancer genomes is now starting to filter from the realm of basic research to the clinic. It is envisioned that the full potential of the Discovery Centre and its rich repository of clinical samples collected over the last decade will find increasing use and application as the technologies to fully capitalise on their potential are being realised. The next decade is likely to witness the full benefits of the targeted therapy revolution in blood cancer. This progress is critically dependent on the ability to validate the effects of new drugs on human tissue samples. The resources of the Discovery Centre contribute in a unique way to the capacity of researchers in Australia to deliver the benefits of personalised genetics and therapies to patients in this country.
The course of the development of the Discovery Centre has not been an easy one. It has been necessary to overcome major logistic issues surrounding a network of more than 70 hospitals, as many often diverse ethics committees, hundreds of clinical and laboratory investigators and myriad complex trials each with specific requirements. Logistical issues have also been multi-faceted. Sample collection, local processing and transport require detailed procedures to ensure sample viability upon arrival at the Brisbane facility.
Another long running issue has been the need to obtain approval from all sites participating in ALLG trials. The current strategy is the creation of a generic consent form for tissue banking which it is hoped will preclude the need for repeated ethics approval for every trial.
Over the decades the Discovery Centre has been sustained by financial and infrastructure and in-kind support by the LFA, Leukaemia Foundation of Queensland (LFQ), the NHMRC, Pathology Queensland and Queensland Health. There have also been important philanthropic and corporate contributions.
In 2015 we have seen the commencement of a three-year partnership between the ALLG, the LFA and the LFQ which will support the future development and enhancement of the Discovery Centre. This underlines the strong historical association and mutual commitment to clinical and translational research by all three bodies, to the benefit of all patients with blood cancers.
Dr Jennifer Fleming from the Centre for Values, Ethics & Law in Medicine at the University of Sydney is currently conducting a multi-disciplinary project into the Sustainability and Utility of Tissue Banks in Australia. As part of this project, Dr Fleming surveyed ALLG trial patients who had provided samples for biobanking at the ALLG Discovery Centre. The survey demonstrated widespread support for biobanking among patients. The patients supported access of samples by independent researchers in public institutions and a large majority supported the linkage of their material to clinical data. As one of them commented, “What I want is for researchers to get the best possible advantage from the tissue so they can find a cure for disease that as yet has no cure (at the very least to learn more, so more people can be saved)”.
Australia’s medical research strategy recognises the value of biobanking. Nationally coordinated biobanking infrastructure facilitates improved outcomes for patients and the production of high quality research and offers toolsets for accelerated knowledge and scientific discovery.
Finally, a comment from Professor Ray Lowenthal from Hobart, who has over 30 years’ experience of clinical research in Australia, and was a key person in the establishment of the ALLG’s highly successful leukaemia trials program.
According to Prof Lowenthal: “30 years ago the idea that leukaemia could be cured would have been considered fanciful. Now several types of leukaemia can indeed be cured and helpful treatment is available for almost all types. This remarkable transformation has come about largely because of studies carried out by clinical scientists throughout the world. Here, the ALLG with the cooperation of many patients, has led the way and ensured that effective treatment is available for as many patients as possible with all types of blood cancers. The ALLG continues to be recognised throughout the world as being at the forefront of clinical research into blood cancers.”[hr]
Delaine Smith is the CEO of the ALLG. To learn more visit the ALLG website. Researcher images provided by the ALLG.