‘Visionary step’ to treat rare cancers

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A generous donation to the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse comprehensive cancer hospital in Sydney could revolutionise the treatment of head and neck cancer.

The Lang Walker Family Foundation has given $3.9 million to the organisation, to establish Australia’s first Professorial Chair in head and neck cancer surgery.

Working in partnership with the University of Sydney, the financial gift will enable Chris O’Brien Lifehouse to invest in the latest 3D printing and virtual surgical planning technology, as well as accelerate research and innovation.

Cancer surgeon Professor Jonathan Clark has been appointed at the inaugural Lang Walker Family Foundation Chair in Head and Neck Cancer Reconstructive Surgery.

He said the donation would give patients access to life-changing breakthroughs.

“Head and neck cancer, and its surgery, can’t be hidden – patients wear this on their faces. It affects their ability to communicate, eat in public, breathe, see and hear, which can lead to social isolation, inability to work, depression and anxiety,” Professor Clark said.

“This incredibly generous gift will allow us to develop our own in-house capability for digital surgical planning and printing for facial reconstructive surgery. 

“And it will enable a program of research that will push the boundaries of technology and ultimately transform outcomes for patients with this devastating cancer.”

A group of rare cancers usually found in the nasal cavity, mouth and throat, these are among the most complex, debilitating and aggressive forms of the disease.

The cancer itself and the surgery can leave the patient highly disfigured, and surgeons must be able to restore both form and function.

Traditionally, replacement bone is taken from the fibula in the lower leg and manually shaped to implant into the patient’s face, a process that could take months in planning and preparation.

Having advanced 3D printing and surgical planning technology on site at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse will cut that down to a matter of days, removing the guesswork and allowing surgeons to construct a precise, symmetrical and personalised implant.

“This gift allows us to give patients the best aesthetic and functional results possible,” Professor Clark said.

“We will be able to stay at the forefront of facial reconstruction and our patients will benefit from new surgical techniques and technologies as they emerge.”

Board member and patient advocate Gail O’Brien said the donation was crucial to making Chris O’Brien Lifehouse "not just a hospital, but a beacon of hope and healing”.

“The altruism and compassion behind this unprecedented support for head and neck cancer is something rare, and patients today and tomorrow will benefit enormously,” she said.

Walker Group executive chairman Lang Walker said his family was proud to have been involved with Chris O’Brien Lifehouse since it opened in 2013.

“We have been impressed with its achievements in such a short time,” he said. 

“Given our ongoing commitment to health and medical research in Sydney, it made sense to further our philanthropic investment into a centre that is an international leader in innovation and improving outcomes for patients with cancers of the head and neck.”

Executive Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health at the University of Sydney, Professor Robyn Ward, said more research was needed for head and neck cancers.

“The University of Sydney welcomes this opportunity to partner with Chris O’Brien Lifehouse to further research that will help patients with these often-debilitating cancers.

“It’s wonderful that the Walker Family Foundation has recognised the need and taken positive steps to improve outcomes for patients,” she said.

According to Cancer Australia, more than 5,200 cases of head and neck cancers were expected to be diagnosed in 2019.

Professor Clark said head and neck cancers “suffered from a low level of awareness and funding”.

“This significant philanthropic investment from the Walker Family Foundation is not only unparalleled but a visionary step forward in the treatment of head and neck cancer.

“This research will not only benefit patients with cancers of the head and neck, but significantly advance all applications of complex facial reconstructive surgery,” he said.

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