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Lymphoma research first of its kind in Australia

Published:  22 December 2023

It’s a daunting task to take on research in a field left previously untouched, but Townsville Hospital and Health Service medical scientist and James Cook University student Alana Finch hasn’t shied away from the challenge.

Ms Finch is conducting the first Australian study of its kind on Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia.

Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia is a rare type of lymphoma (cancer) where a person’s bone marrow produces too many abnormal white blood cells which crowd out the healthy ones.

Ms Finch’s master’s thesis will analyse the incidence and prevalence of the disease in Australia, building on research mostly coming from the United States of America (USA).

“My research is looking at those people with a diagnosis of Waldenstrom’s within Australia and completing a data review using data sourced from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare cancer and AUSLAB databases,” Ms Finch said.

“This will allow me to do a statistical analysis of the patients within Australia and assess the incidence and prevalence of the disease.

“By understanding the prevalence of the disease, we can look at how we’re treating patients, if they have any common factors and what more we can be doing for these people living this illness.’’

Ms Finch has received a $2500 research grant from the Australian Institute of Medical and Clinical Scientists to assist with the collection of the data she needs.

Another component of the research is looking more specifically at patients with Waldenstrom’s within Queensland and the pathology testing they received.

Research from the USA has shown patients with a mutation of their IgM immunoglobulin with an unknown cause – known as an IgM MGUS – are at higher risk of developing Waldenstrom’s later in life.

Ms Finch said in Australia, the clinical diagnosis pathway for patients with Waldenstrom’s was a diagnosis of exclusion.

“I’d like to study the clinical utility of the mutation linked to Waldenstrom’s to see how genetic testing improves patient management,” Ms Finch said.

“Patients in Australia have only been routinely tested for this mutation since 2015, and they will only be tested for it if they aren’t responding to therapies.

“My goal, and what I would like to achieve at the end of this research, is to have the test utilised more in the clinical pathway so it is one of the first things done for a patient with suspected Waldenstrom’s.

“Research has shown the potential for the identification of the mutation to have wide-spread clinical applications, and I think it’s my duty to translate this into real-world practice to improve the patient journey.”

At the heart of Ms Finch’s work is wanting to improve accessibility to the test, which means applying to have the test covered by Medicare by submitting the results of the research to the Medicare Benefits Schedule.

“My wishful thinking is that by showing the validity of conducting the test early in the clinical pathway, we can submit the research and have the test covered by Medicare for these patients,” she said.

“At the end of this research, what I want is to help these patients the best I can and I’m grateful for my supervisory team of Dr Alexandra Trollope, Associate Professor Donna Rudd, Dr Joel Wight and Dr Prashant Kapoor who are supporting me to do just this."

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