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SCUPH & Noosa Hospital cancer patients set to benefit from new oncologist’s global expertise

Sep 09, 2021

A Queensland oncologist who spent two years conducting cancer research and clinical trials at the world-renowned Harvard Cancer Institute says he’s thrilled to return home to the Sunshine Coast, not only to treat local patients but also to expand the region’s medical research capabilities.

Doctor Andrew Schmidt travelled to the United States in 2019 to conduct extensive research at Dana Faber / Harvard Cancer Institute, when the global COVID-19 pandemic turned his work plans upside down.

“I had been working only a short period before the pandemic well and truly hit. All of our research labs got shut down, we were working predominantly from home and had to pivot our research to address the very immediate danger of cancer patients being exposed to COVID-19,” Dr Schmidt said.

“The virus changed everything. We normally form a hypothesis, then test it in a controlled or randomised fashion. But the pandemic was dynamic and if you try to perform all of your research in a traditional way, it becomes irrelevant very quickly, often before it can benefit patients.”

Doctor Schmidt was among a group of researchers who instigated a crowd-sourced collaboration via Twitter to see how COVID-19 was affecting cancer patients. 127 cancer institutes combined data from more than 11,000 cancer patients. It’s a project Dr Schmidt continues to work on from Australia and he has been a lead author in several peer-reviewed articles.

“In addition we were worried patients weren’t getting screened properly during COVID-19 and our research confirmed it, particularly around breast and prostate cancer, because people wanted to avoid contact with healthcare facilities. We needed to educate clinicians and patients, and change the way we were delivering health care to get around the virus so for example we can do a stool test at home for colon cancer screening. It might not be as good as a colonoscopy but it’ll get you 90% there,” he said.

“It was a highly visible medical article across medical and social media platforms. We were able to communicate a clear message to medical professionals and patients alike and measure how the subsequent rebound in screening was making a difference. It is vitally important that people understand that preventative health care still needs to happen in the background of the pandemic,” Dr Schmidt said.

Sunshine Coast University Private Hospital’s Clinical Trials Unit was one of the draw cards that lured Dr Schmidt back to Queensland. The team launched a new prostate cancer trial just last week.

“What I call ‘man cancers’, so prostate and testicular cancers, are the reason I get up in the morning. My best mate and grandad both died of cancer when I was an oncology pharmacist and it led me to go into medicine so that I could help people,” Dr Schmidt said.

“I wanted to improve my research skills at a world centre of excellence so that I could bring that knowledge back to help local patients. Clinical trials is a growth area and we have the ability to expand this unit and really benefit cancer patients on the Sunshine Coast,” he said.

His timing was impeccable with Ramsay Health Care Australia launching its inaugural Ramsay Research Month in September - to shine a light on its commitment to medical research and clinical trials. Across Australia, Ramsay is participating in more than 1,000 clinical trials and research projects involving 27,000 patients.

While Dr Schmidt was born in Townsville he said the Sunshine Coast had always felt like home, and his parents now live in the house his grandfather built at Peregian Beach 50 years ago.

“It was a shack, and then it was a slightly bigger shack and now it’s a renovated shack,” Dr Schmidt said with a laugh.

“There’s still an ugly shed out the back but it just has such great memories for me as a kid playing with cars in the backyard. It’s fantastic to be home”.

Doctor Schmidt will consult from both Sunshine Coast University Private Hospital and Noosa Hospital.