In summary

  • A Swinburne-led project has received funding from the Medical Research Future Fund under the improving diagnosis in cancers with low survival rates grant
  • The team is looking to develop an improved model of care for a rare condition known as cancers of unknown primary (CUP)
  • The project is part of a collaborative program of research run out of Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre

A Swinburne-led collaborative project has received funding from the federal government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF). The research team will receive $2.4 million in funding under the Improving Diagnosis in Cancers with Low Survival Rates grant.

This project will run at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and also involve researchers from Deakin University and the University of Melbourne. It is the newest study of a program of research looking to solve a rare condition known as cancers of unknown primary (CUP).

‘We are very grateful for this funding. I am passionate about improving outcomes for this ignored group of patients and look forward to working with my research partners as we seek to better understand CUP and develop new and effective models of care,’ says Professor of Health Psychology and lead investigator, Penelope Schofield.

This suite of studies are jointly run by Professor Schofield, Professor Linda Mileshkin from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Professor Richard Tothill from The University of Melbourne.

What are cancers of unknown primary?

CUP is a rare condition where a cancer has spread but a primary tumour evades detection.

‘It is a diagnostic conundrum,’ Professor Schofield explains.

The goal is work-out a more specific cancer diagnosis (ie what the primary cancer type is) in order to guide effective treatment. A diagnosis of ’true CUP’ can only be made if the type of primary cancer cannot be confirmed following a standardised series of medical tests. However, it is estimated that only half of Australian patients diagnosed with CUP receive the recommended work-up in a timely fashion.

‘This is contributed to by deteriorating health, availability of diagnostic modalities or required specialist services locally or a lack of expert opinion. On the flip side, over-investigation can lead to a prolonged diagnostic odyssey in some cases – this can involve multiple referrals, meetings with specialists and a variety of often futile investigations,’ she adds.

There is an urgent need for a standardised diagnostic approach for CUP to be adopted nationally. Without this, some CUP diagnoses may be inaccurate, or may take too long to diagnose.

Initiated and guided by a consumer committee, the team plans to use the funding to develop a new model of care that will be tested and implemented through an Australia-wide network of healthcare services that treat CUP patients. 

‘The lived experiences of patients and carers are crucial to developing a model of care that addresses all the concerns and needs of those impacted by CUP. To better understand the patient experience, we established a consumer committee a few years ago to inform our research,’ says Professor Schofield. 

‘We hope that this model will reduce time to diagnosis and lead to better treatments that will ultimately improve patient experiences and survival,’ Professor Schofield explains.

Improving the lives of Australians

The MRFF awards funding to groundbreaking medical research projects around Australia to improve the lives of Australians and their loved ones.

In 2021, more than 100 medical research projects have been awarded MRFF grants to improve health outcomes for Australians with cancer, dementia, brain injuries and heart problems, among others. 

Related articles