Griffith University researchers have secured a $2 million grant from Cancer Council Queensland (CCQ), paving the way for the final phase of an ongoing trial that aims to bolster survival rates for women with ovarian cancer.

The research, led by Professor Sandi Hayes of the Menzies Health Institute Queensland, is delving further into a wealth of evidence that shows the benefits of exercise therapy during recovery following certain cancer treatments.

Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common cause of death from cancer in women with a five-year survival rate of less than 45 per cent.

Professor Hayes, a world-leading exercise oncology scientist, said it was an essential area of research as there is limited research on the benefits of exercise to women with ovarian cancer, which has a higher mortality rate than other more common cancers typically due to late-term diagnosis.

“RCT (randomised control trial) evidence demonstrates that exercise can improve lives during and following treatment for our common cancers, such as breast, colorectal and prostate,” Professor Hayes said.

Professor Sandi Hayes

“Our preliminary findings show that exercise is safe, feasible and acceptable during chemotherapy for women with ovarian cancer. We now have the opportunity to extend our research and to determine the extent to which exercise can improve and extend the lives of women with ovarian cancer.”

CCQ’s annual Accelerating Collaborative Cancer Research program, in collaboration with Griffith University, provides $2 million over the next four years to support the final and most crucial phase of a national, randomised controlled trial, which is poised to assess the effect of exercise on survival following ovarian cancer.

“Investment in innovative, ground-breaking research in Queensland is vital for reducing the burden of cancer in our community,” said Chris McMillan, the CEO of CCQ.

“We have implemented the highly competitive Accelerating Collaborative Cancer Research grant scheme so that we can fast-track the most innovative, high-quality projects put forward by Queensland researchers,” she said.

“Grant recipients are at the forefront of cancer research and their teams’ research provides hope for the 29,000 Queenslanders diagnosed with cancer each year.”

Professor Hayes and her research team are undertaking the exercise oncology ECHO trial in collaboration with the Australia New Zealand Gynaecological Oncology Group and the NHMRC Clinical Trial Centre.

The first phase of ECHO involved 300 women. The CCQ grant will allow the research team to extend the scale of the research to include 200 more women, and in doing so enable the evaluation of the effect of exercise on survival following cancer.

“The first phase of our study demonstrated that it was safe to use exercise therapy during ovarian cancer treatment, and that women were able to exercise during chemotherapy,” said Professor Hayes.

“While we are currently evaluating the effect of exercise on function, quality of life and ability to adhere to chemotherapy, with CCQ funding, the final phase of the ECHO trial can commence in 2021. This final phase allows us to evaluate survival — the key, practice-changing outcome.”

CCQ CEO Chris McMillan and Health Minister Steven Miles at Nathan Campus in 2018

The ECHO trial is one of only four randomised, controlled trials worldwide evaluating the effects of exercise on survival following cancer, and is the only one to also evaluate health resource usage, which will determine whether exercise is a cost-effective cancer therapy.

The trial garnered international attention during the 2018 International Exercise is Medicine Roundtable in the US.

“We welcome the support of Cancer Council Queensland for Griffith University’s world-leading cancer research programs,” said Professor Hayes.

“If we can prove exercise enhances the quality and quantity of life of those with ovarian cancer, while reducing health care and personal costs, it will influence clinical practice guidelines internationally because this can be implemented into standard cancer care quickly and inexpensively.

“The outcome will ultimately have a flow-on effect to other cancers as well.”