She is working on identifying comparable biomarkers for cancers of the oesophagus and stomach as well, for which there is no current screening test available, and that are typically only identified at relatively late stages of disease.
In addition, Associate Professor Symonds and her colleagues are conducting research that aims to assist doctors in prioritising which patients require colonoscopy most urgently. A colonoscopy is an invasive procedure, requires 24 hours of patient preparation and puts a large burden on the public health system. Around one million colonoscopies are performed each year in Australia.
“When patients present to a GP with symptoms and are sent for a colonoscopy, about 85% of them are found to have nothing of significant concern,” Associate Professor Symonds says. “It would be really useful to be able to screen out this low-risk group.”
Funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, this line of research focuses on identifying protein or DNA biomarkers of adenomas and bowel cancers in small stool samples. Associate Professor Symonds hopes that with further work, it could be used in a similar way to the current faecal screening test offered to Australians over the age of 50 by the Australian Government.
“The first stages of this work involve exploring which biomarkers hold the most promise, and then testing them using donated patient samples which we already have stored and ready to go,” she says.
Much of Associate Professor Symonds’ work is linked with a program called SCOOP (Southern Co-operative Program for the Prevention of Colorectal Cancer), which has been running in South Australia since 1999 to improve surveillance rates for people at increased risk of bowel cancer.
Her impetus is the knowledge that when bowel cancer is detected early, it’s often treatable.
“Every time I hear about a person being diagnosed with bowel cancer, it’s motivation for me to work harder, to try and make a difference,” she says. “It’s satisfying to be able to collaborate with the GPs and hospital doctors, to work with health economists and behavioural researchers and, statisticians — all of these key people in making sure the work that we do as scientists is able to make it all the way to better clinical care for patients.”