It is my great privilege, as the honorary Director of the FECRI, to welcome you to the new FECRI website.
The FECRI had humble beginnings in a disused paint shed at the back of the boiler house at St John of God Hospital in Ballarat. The vision for a cancer research laboratory in Ballarat came from a remarkable teenager, Fiona Elsey, who had a rare form of cancer called Ewing's sarcoma. She was receiving regular chemotherapy treatments in Melbourne under my care as her treating oncologist, and she was an active supporter of the cancer research laboratories at the Royal Children's Hospital, which I headed at the time. We were both commuting from Ballarat to Melbourne, as I had made my decision with my family to live a country life-style in Ballarat on my return from the Dana Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard University, in December 1989.
Fiona's cancer unfortunately spread and Fiona lost her fight for life on the 6th of October 1991. Before she died she made me promise that one day an internationally recognized cancer research laboratory would be established in Ballarat. To this end, her family and friends in conjunction with the Sisters of St John of God worked tirelessly over many years to secure some funding to help with the initial establishment of a cancer research laboratory in Ballarat.
The dream was recognized in 1998 with the official opening of the Fiona Elsey Cancer Research Laboratory. The laboratory was officially opened by the then Minister for Health, the Hon. Robert Knowles. The challenges were immense with an underequipped laboratory staffed by a part-time scientist and a part-time Director. There were many difficult years struggling to survive but the wonderful support of many individuals and community groups allowed the laboratory to expand and flourish.
The pivotal role of many remarkable individuals who battled cancer is reflected in the named laboratories, namely - the Robert Clemence Molecular Cancer Laboratory opened by Professor Sir Gustav Nossal, the Ainsley Dansick Cancer Research Laboratory opened by Professor Kerry Cox, the Jack and Millie Borbidge Cancer Laboratory opened by Mr Roger Snell, the Bruce Stafford Cancer Research Laboratory opened by Professor Jan-Inge Henter, the renovated Fiona Elsey Cancer Research Institute opened by Nobel laureate Professor Peter Doherty, the Graeme and Millie Troon Auditorium and refurbished Ainsley Dansick Cancer Cell Biology Laboratory by Professor Richard Boyd, and I had the honour of opening the Betty and Tom Smith Cancer Research Laboratory.
The governance of the FECRI was greatly enhanced by the establishment of a Board in 2004, to oversee the running of the FECRI. I am indebted to Mr Bill Wood, the inaugural Chairman of the Board, for his vision to encourage a truly remarkable group to join the Board, who through their collective wisdom, have made possible a governance structure second to none. The stewardship of the Board continues in excellent hands with Emeritus Professor Wayne Robinson as the new Chair. It is difficult for the community to perhaps appreciate the amount of time and effort it has taken to establish a freestanding cancer research facility. The establishment of a development and fundraising office has also complemented the laboratory research program.
The FECRI currently has nine full and part-time research scientists, including one PhD student from the University of Ballarat. The FECRI and the University of Ballarat signed an affiliated institute agreement in 2007, to share research infrastructure and undertake collaborative research. Our shared seminar program has brought many internationally acclaimed scientists to Ballarat and has resulted in collaborative research with national and international cancer research centers.
I am fortunate to work with a group of dedicated and talented scientists who are passionate about their science as well as the FECRI. After many years of dedicated research in the area of Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis(LCH), a disorder of immune cells causing 'cancer-like' lesions in the organs of affected individuals, we have discovered a key cell that may trigger the disease. This research by Drs Jenny West and Sharon Olsen, as well as Ms Jenee Mitchell and Ms Jenny Luke, has potential benefits in understanding how the immune system functions, with implications in the treatment of other cancers, autoimmune disorders and viral infections
This work was only made possible by a generous donation to purchase a FACSAria II cell sorter, by Stuart and Sue Gull, James and Val Selkirk and the estate of Harry and Peggy Maddicks.
Research by Dr Monirul Islam directed at studying a mouse model for LCH, has led to the discovery of a new virus which has been identified and the molecular sequence published in GeneBank. Further studies will be undertaken to determine the role, if any, played by this virus in the causation of LCH lesions.
Finally, we have established a laboratory test to directly test chemotherapy drugs and biological agents on living cancer cells obtained from patients with lung cancer and mesothelioma (an asbestos-related lung cancer). This research work undertaken by Mr Brendan Toohey, has progressed to be the world's first randomised trial of this method, where we are comparing the response in patients with standard chemotherapy for in-operable lung cancer, to that obtained with individualized chemotherapy based on the laboratory assay.
The FECRI currently has collaborative interactions with the University of Melbourne (A/Prof Damian Purcell), the University of Portsmouth UK (Prof Ian Cree), and Prof Jan-Inge Henter (Karolinska Institute, Sweden) on the above projects.
The future for cancer research in Ballarat looks bright. The FECRI will continue to facilitate high quality basic and translational cancer research. We look forward to fruitful and continued interactions with the University of Ballarat, Ballarat Oncology and Haematology Services (providing cancer and haematology services to Ballarat Day Procedure Centre, St John of God Hospital, as well as Horsham, Stawell and Ararat) and the Ballarat Health Services (the future Ballarat Regional Integrated Cancer Center 'BRICC).
Professor George Kannourakis.