Understanding the who, what and why of cancer

Associate Professor Roger Milne heads up the Australian Breakthrough Cancer Study, a future-focussed research program that aims to identify the different roles that our genes, lifestyle and environment play in the development of cancer.

What if you could minimise or prevent the onset of certain types of cancer just by knowing and acting on the risk factors that are personal to you and your body? Associate Professor Roger Milne and his research team at Cancer Council are working towards achieving that ambitious mission.

The Cancer Council Australian Breakthrough Cancer (ABC) Study is following the lives of 50,000 Australians to identify the different roles that our genes, lifestyle and environment play in the development of cancer.

Study participants are volunteers contributing a wide range of information about themselves including height, weight, diet and lifestyle habits, employment status, number of children and family history of cancer. This information is securely stored and updated as circumstances change over time. Participants also donate a saliva sample to allow comprehensive DNA analysis.

While it may seem like a random collection of personal information, this database in combination with genetic data is incredibly valuable for helping researchers to both identify what risk factors are involved with different types of cancer, and measure the importance of these risk factors to people with different genetic profiles.

I am inspired by people's generosity in contributing to Cancer Council research. We are in a really exciting time in terms of what kind of data we can generate to inform research.

We already know that one in three cancers could be caused by lifestyle behaviours like smoking, too much UV exposure, excess alcohol, poor nutrition, being inactive, poor diet or excess weight. But what other risk factors are there – and how does their effect vary from person to person?

The ABC Study aims to understand what influences personal cancer risk, who is at low risk, who is most affected, and how can we best reduce that risk. Ultimately, researchers want to be able to provide doctors and individuals with a personalised list of recommendations for how cancer risk can be minimised over a person’s lifetime.

The study will also help to provide an estimate of cancer risk for different groups in the general population, meaning health resources, screening programs and education campaigns can be targeted to the right people at the right time.

The ABC Study data and biological material will be an amazing resource that enables us to pool or segment data to inform decisions about more targeted cancer prevention and screening for our community.

Of course, research programs like the ABC Study are more of a marathon than a sprint and research outcomes are likely to be several years off. However, Cancer Council and the research community agree that investment into the ABC Study will provide an enormously rich resource for use in future cancer research. As technology advances, this study will contribute greatly to major research discoveries both here and overseas.

Put simply, the ABC Study would not exist if it wasn’t for Cancer Council funding and expertise. It’s important to realise that the knowledge we are generating is not just used in Australia, it will contribute to research work across the world.

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