Caroline Hangay has a rare blood cancer. Photo: Justin McManus Caroline Hangay is the first Australian to join a clinical trail at Peter Mac. Photo: Justin McManus
Caroline Hangay has a rare blood cancer called acute myeloid leukaemia. If she had to choose a type of cancer to be saddled with, she says, this one would not be it.
“If I had to choose a cancer, I’d choose breast cancer because we know so much about it,” the 35-year-old said.
As the first Australian to participate in an international clinical trial for a new treatment for this aggressive form of cancer, the mother of one hopes that will soon change.
Diagnosed in March 2014, Mrs Hangay said three types of chemotherapy failed to improve her condition. The doctor treating her, Michael Dickinson, suggested she sign up to participate in a clinical trial he was involved with.
“I went in thinking that if it doesn’t help me, then at least it contributes to finding new treatments or even an eventual cure for this cancer,” she said.
Thirteen weeks into the trial and the signs are promising. Mrs Hangay still has to undergo blood transfusions twice a week, but she has halved the number of bags she needs, which has cut her time spent in the chair to three or four hours.
She is no longer undergoing chemotherapy, which used to put her in hospital for weeks, due to the devastating impact the treatment had on her immune system.
“It means I can spend more time at home with my two-year-old and my husband, and that also means that I get some normality back in my life,” she said.
The human trial, being conducted in Australia at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, is the result of eight years of research led by consultant haematologist Mark Dawson.
Associate Professor Dawson said the trial, for patients who have exhausted all other options, would determine the highest dose of a new drug that can be safely delivered without too many side effects.
Mrs Hangay is the first of dozens of Australian trial participants, with human trials also taking place in London, Cambridge, New York and Texas.
He said the epigenetic drug being trialled worked by manipulating the way the body “reads its barcode”, which effectively switches off cancer-causing genes. Epigenetics is the study of cellular variations that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence.
Associate Professor Dawson said the drug would be delivered in tablet form.
“This is likely to change the way we treat some of these patients and while there is no one tablet that can cure cancer, this can be used in combination with other treatments,” he said.
Acute myeloid leukaemia reduces the number red and white blood cells produced by the body, with symptoms including tiredness, shortness of breath and being prone to bruising. Around 900 Australians are diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia a year. It’s a rare cancer, accounting for 0.8 per cent of all cancers diagnosed, according to the Leukaemia Foundation.
Mrs Hangay said she found participating in the clinical trial a positive experience. However, fewer Victorians are signing up for trials.
Figures released by Cancer Council Victoria on Wednesday reveal a worrying trend, with the percentage of cancer patients participating in clinical trials stalling at between 6 and 7 per cent since the 1990s.
In contrast, participation rates in Britain have risen from 4 per cent to 17 per cent in the past decade alone.
“Clinical trials are an essential step in transforming laboratory research findings into better health care for cancer patients,” the council’s clinical network deputy chair, Orla McNally, said.
In 2008 the Victorian government set a target of 15 per cent patient participation by 2020.
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