Research targets “best bets” for reducing cancer burden

New research using data from the Sax Institute’s 45 and Up Study will shed light on which risk factors health decision makers should address to reduce Australia’s cancer burden.

In its latest grant funding round, the National Health and Medical Research Council awarded more than $300,000 to the University of New South Wales’ Dr Maarit Laaksonen to investigate the relative importance of lifestyle risk factors for different cancer outcomes in Australians.

Tracking population data over time

Dr Laaksonen and her research team will gather data from several large Australian cohort studies and representative ABS National Health Surveys that have measured lifestyle risk factors, and link them with national cancer and death databases.

They will then follow what happens in time and analyse the associations between the risk factors and occurrence of various cancers.

This method of using big data sets will help the research team identify the most harmful risk factor combinations for different cancers on a population level, and the most vulnerable population sub-groups.

The power of big data

“The 45 and Up Study is unique in that it’s the largest Australian cohort study, and it will provide about 70% of the data for our study,” Dr Laaksonen said.

The Institute’s 45 and Up Study is following more than 250,000 people in NSW over 45 to boost Australia’s understanding of healthy ageing. Nearly 500 researchers are currently using the Study data for research projects ranging from sleep and physical activity to investigating the causes of early retirement.

Priorities for prevention

Many studies have investigated the relative risks for different cancers, but this will be one of the first Australian studies to look at how the risk factors interact on a population level, taking prevalence into account.

“Weaker but very prevalent risk factors, such as obesity, may accumulate a significant population-level cancer burden, and their prevention may actually have a bigger public health impact than the prevention of stronger but rarer risk factors,” Dr Laaksonen said.

This was important in setting priorities for cancer prevention in Australia, and ensuring scarce resources are allocated in the most cost-effective way, and could be used for planning national preventive strategies and evaluating future healthcare resource needs, she said.

Dr Laaksonen would like to thank her co-investigators on this project: Associate Professor Karen Canfell (UNSW), Associate Professor Claire Vajdic (UNSW), Dr Robert MacInnis (Cancer Council Victoria), Professor Emily Banks (ANU), Professor Graham Giles (Cancer Council Victoria), Professor Paul Mitchell (USYD), Professor Robert Cumming (USYD), Professor Julie Byles (University of Newcastle), and Dr Barbara-Ann Adelstein (UNSW). She would also like to express her gratitude for being able to access all these datasets – without which the project would not be possible.