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Monday, 26 October 2009
Page: 7137


Senator LUNDY (9:45 PM) —Today is Pink Ribbon Day and in this month, October, we highlight the incidence of breast cancer and the initiatives in Australia to combat this problem and to support the people and families affected by it. Each year between 12,600 and 13,000 women are diagnosed as having breast cancer and, according to the Breast Cancer Network Australia, this number is rising. It is thought that one woman in nine will develop breast cancer, with the figure for the ACT being one in six women.

Both research and support initiatives are vital to combating this most common cause of cancer related death of Australian women. So this government, working with the established cancer organisations, provides funding for continuing and new programs. In August the government announced that more than $2.7 million of new federal funding would enable the National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre, together with Breast Cancer Network Australia, to deliver practical help to rural breast cancer sufferers, their families and carers. Online programs will enable rural health professionals, including Indigenous health workers, to access information on the latest treatments and programs and will enable communication between patients and their families. This will complement the other government funded programs, which include:      $120 million for BreastScreen Australia for the latest digital mammography equipment; $168 million for continued funding of the Herceptin program; $31 million over five years for reimbursements for breast prostheses; $28 million for other breast cancer measures, including $12 million for the McGrath Foundation for breast care nurses in 44 communities; and, finally, Labor’s $560 million for a network of 10 best-practice regional cancer centres.

The government supports not only research into the causes, prevention and detection of cancer but also beneficial treatment programs. The National Breast Cancer Foundation, NBCF, relies on both government and community funding for its research programs and recently announced that, since 1994, it had expended a total of $55 million across 230 research programs. One groundbreaking development which has recently gained publicity has been from one research program funded by the NBCF. A team from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research has made a breakthrough in furthering understanding of the specific gene mutation which makes some women more at risk of developing breast cancer. Researchers have found a population of breast cells which could be responsible for the breast cancers which develop in women carrying BRCA1 gene mutations. These gene mutations are found in 10 to 20 per cent of women with hereditary breast cancer, and they often develop a particularly aggressive form of the disease.

Research published in the international journal Nature Medicine represents a major shift in the way breast cancer is understood to develop and points to a new avenue for targeted treatments, or tailored therapies, for the next generation. Through such research projects, and through this government’s commitment, Australia makes a major contribution to the international effort towards understanding and combating cancer. Professor David Hill AO, Director of the Cancer Council of Victoria, is currently serving as president of the International Union Against Cancer. This is a non-government, independent association with member organisations in over 90 countries. Its objectives are to advance scientific and medical knowledge in research, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of cancer and to promote this campaign worldwide. Professor Hill has said that governments around the world that focus on cancer prevention campaigns will potentially save the lives of millions of people. In addition, as more cancers are prevented, pressures on healthcare systems should decrease.

I have already mentioned one project but, at present, a good deal of research on the causes of breast cancer, which is taking place in Australia and in other countries, focuses on the study of genes and genetic mutations. If we can identify the causes of cancer, we can go a long way towards developing individually tailored, effective treatments. Breast Cancer organisations and representative bodies in Australia are taking a keen interest in the current inquiry by the Senate Community Affairs References Committee into the impact of gene patents on the provision of health care in Australia. The Senate inquiry was prompted by concerns, particularly from breast and ovarian cancer groups, over the exclusive licence held by a private company for the testing of BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations. In 2008 the company decided to enforce its right under licence to be the sole provider of this testing. Although the company then retreated from this position, the fear was created that a monopoly on gene testing could be imposed at any time. At least six of the current research projects funded through the National Breast Cancer Foundation involve gene or gene mutation studies. The NBCF sees dangers in such ownership or monopoly situations not only from the point of view of the inhibiting of research but also from the perspective of the possible absence of risk assessment and counselling in the testing process.

In the United States patents have been granted for about 20 per cent of human genes. In May this year the American Civil Liberties Union and others—including scientific organisations, medical professionals, researchers, and breast cancer and women’s health groups—filed a lawsuit against the United States Patent and Trademark Office, charging that patents on two human genes associated with breast and ovarian cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2, are unconstitutional and invalid. Points made in the US case were: further scientific research on gene mutation or the development of alternative diagnostic methods could be delayed, limited or prevented; only one company was entitled to perform the diagnostic testing, and women would be unable to get a second opinion; the cost of the tests could well be unaffordable for many; and the funding for the initial research which led to the development of these tests was from public funding agencies. A ruling on whether this lawsuit is to proceed is due later this month. These points are now also being made to the current Senate inquiry.

Patents are granted on a country-by-country basis. Apparently the Melbourne private company, Genetic Technologies Limited, has a commercial licensing agreement with the US firm Myriad, which allows it to have the exclusive Australian rights to diagnostic testing for the gene mutations associated with breast and ovarian cancer. Many of the submissions to the Senate inquiry have come from those likely to be most affected by any exercising of a monopoly over human gene sequences. They include Breast Cancer Network Australia, which is the peak organisation for Australians personally affected by breast cancer, the Breast Cancer Action Group NSW, a joint submission from the Cancer Council Australia and the Clinical Oncological Society of Australia, and others representing doctors, pathologists and researchers. A thoughtful submission has been made by my colleague the member for Fremantle, Melissa Parke, MP. Submissions from the cancer and health organisations have urged, in the words of the joint submission from the Cancer Council Australia and COSA:

… the only efficient, permanent way to ameliorate the numerous adverse impacts around gene patenting before the technology evolves further is to exclude genes from the definition of patentable material.

The Senate Community Affairs References Committee has been commended in many of the submissions for tackling such an important and timely inquiry. Developments in genetic science and the new directions in breast cancer research make it essential that we tackle issues with foresight and with regard to the needs of our future wellbeing. I look forward, as I am sure we all do, to the committee’s findings and recommendations, and I congratulate the organisations for their reasoned and detailed submissions.

On this Pink Ribbon Day I would like to reflect, just in the few minutes I have remaining to speak, on some of the events that occurred over the weekend. I am a patron of Dragons Abreast here in the ACT and was very proud to be asked to participate in the wonderful Dragons Abreast dragon boat regatta held in Lake Burley Griffin this Saturday past. The Canberra weather was kind to us and it was the most glorious spring day. Not only was the program so wonderfully put together that it ran ahead of schedule but also it permitted everybody to participate in a final of one sort or another. I was there to help hand out the prizes. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the wonderful women involved in Dragons Abreast here in Canberra, and indeed around Australia, for the energy and commitment they have to an organisation that celebrates the life of cancer survivors and supports those who are still fighting their battles. I would also like to mention the Pink Ribbon Motorcycle Ride, organised by Canberra group Girls on the Move—a group of motorcycle riders who dressed up their motorbikes in glorious pink yesterday—culminating in a wonderful barbecue at Weston Park and again raising money for breast cancer research.