Meet our researchers: A/Prof Rhonda Farrell | Chris O'Brien Lifehouse

Australian women with ovarian cancer face the highest mortality rate of all gynaecological cancers. More than 1500 women in Australia are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year.

For the vast majority of them (75 per cent), the cancer is already advanced when diagnosed, being Stage III or above, and has spread outside the pelvis to the lining of the abdominal cavity or peritoneum and nearby lymph nodes.

Standard treatment in Australia for advanced ovarian cancer involves surgery to remove the visible cancer followed by chemotherapy to destroy any microscopic cancer cells remaining.
Associate Professor Rhonda Farrell, Director of Gynae-Oncology at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, is leading research into a targeted approach to chemotherapy for women with ovarian cancer. Her research is focussed on Heated Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy (HIPEC). HIPEC involves delivering chemotherapy that is heated to between 41-42 degrees Celsius, directly into a patient’s abdominal cavity during surgery, giving a higher concentration of the drug directly to the cancer cells.

HIPEC has been used to treat cancers that spread to the abdominal cavity such as colon, stomach and mesothelioma, but is not currently used in Australia in the treatment of ovarian cancer.
A/Prof Farrell says, “While this technique has great potential to advance the treatment of ovarian cancer, there hasn’t been enough research into the efficacy of this approach. We still don’t know whether it’s the heat itself, the direct contact with the drug or a combination of both that is most effective.”

A/Prof Farrell is now leading a world-first clinical trial, HyNOVA, that aims to answer this question. A collaboration with surgeons and oncologists across gynae-oncology, colorectal, upper GI and peritonectomy, HyNOVA brings together exceptional expertise and multiple partner sites.

All patients in the trial will receive the best surgical treatment with chemotherapy delivered to the abdomen during surgery. Half will receive heated chemotherapy and half will receive chemotherapy at body temperature, to determine whether the temperature improves outcomes for women with ovarian cancer.

A/Prof Farrell expects to recruit between 15 and 20 patients each year over a three-year period.

“The extraordinary support of our donors has afforded me the opportunity to do the groundwork on this clinical trial and bring it to the stage of being nationally recognised,” A/Prof Farrell says. “Their generosity will directly impact the lives of many women faced with advanced ovarian cancer.”

HyNOVA has also received recognition from the federal government with a grant of $686,000 from the Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund. The grant was received as part of a $13.6 million investment supporting 10 clinical trials in different areas of medical research. This study will be run through the Australia and New Zealand Gynaecological Oncology Group (ANZGOG) clinical trials group.

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Find out about Chris O’Brien Lifehouse cancer research, including clinical trials and key developments here.

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