Professor Adele Green spent much of her own childhood growing up in the tropics under the harsh Australian sun and regretfully admits to being a teenage “sun worshipper like everyone else” in the era before sun safety messages flooded the nation’s screens. While studying at the University of Queensland, her natural curiosity and dogged pursuit of answers steered her squarely towards the world of medical research. She has since dedicated her career to finding ways to combat skin cancer and in particular its most deadly incarnation, melanoma.
In Australia, melanoma is the fourth most prevalent form of cancer and the most common cancer in young people aged 15 to 44. Every year more than 10,000 Australians are treated for melanoma and sadly, the disease will claim the lives of 1,200 of them.
Driven to prevent the suffering of thousands more victims, Professor Green, now head of Cancer and Population Studies at the Brisbane-based QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, has long been a pioneer in the field of skin cancer research. “When people think of medical research they often think of cures and treatment but I realised early on that we also needed to look at prevention and lifestyle,” she says. “It was unusual at the time to look at the disease upstream of the normal treatment paradigm.”
The inception of Professor Green’s landmark trial of sunscreen use in the small rural town of Nambour in her home state of Queensland which has the highest rates of melanoma in the world, harks back she says to the early 1990s. Half of the 1,621 participants were randomised to use sunscreen every day while the other half were randomised to stick to their usually sporadic sunscreen application habits.
After following participants for ten years after the randomised trial had ended, the results showed that daily sunscreen users had half the rate of melanoma seen in the control group. The study was a breakthrough in skin cancer research, effectively showing that melanoma is preventable with regular sunscreen application. Though this had taken almost 20 years of research to confirm, Professor Green cites the study as her proudest achievement in a long line of career accolades that includes being shortlisted for Australian of the Year in 2013 and being named the overall winner in the Australian Financial Review and Westpac Women of Influence Awards of the same year.
Innovation and tenacity are hallmarks of Professor Green’s exceptional career but she is quick to share the credit with the supportive and connected community of Australian medical researchers. “There’s no doubt that we punch above our weight across the spectrum of cancer research considering what a small population we are,” she says. “Early detection, effective treatments and understanding the causes are all areas where Australian researchers have had enormous impact translating research into action and raising awareness within the community.”
“Much of that culture of innovation comes from government through the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) investment and we’re also extremely fortunate to have a unique partnership between the NHMRC and each state’s Cancer Council that ensures very high standards of cancer research are maintained and helps policy implementation too.”
The Cancer Council Australia, in collaboration with each of the state and territory Cancer Councils, is the peak national non-government cancer control organisation, providing advice on the prevention, detection and treatment of cancer. Cancer Council Victoria’s award-winning SunSmart program has been operating since 1988 and is a world-leader in UV protection.
Recent studies looking at the generational shift in sun-safety awareness and the prevention of skin cancer have delivered some very positive results. “As with nearly all cancers, the risk increases as we get older but the good news is that people are much more alert now and we’re seeing many more instances of early diagnosis,” Professor Green explains.
“We’re now seeing the first signs of that much-needed attitudinal shift: younger people who’ve been exposed to SunSmart messages since the 1980s are at a time in their life when melanoma is a risk but in fact we’re seeing a stabilisation of their melanoma rates, and in some instances even a downturn, which is extremely encouraging. To my mind, this is a clear endorsement of the sun-safety messages and our challenge now is to maintain this culture of heightened awareness in the coming decades. We need these young people and their children to continue with less enthusiastic exposure to the sun and use multiple methods of protection.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, Professor Green is committed to nurturing the next generation of medical researchers in the fight against cancer and the future of cancer research is never far from her mind. “There’s enormous talent coming up through the ranks and competition for career research funding is fierce here in Australia during the post-doctoral years,” she says. “Adequate funding and mentorship are critical to helping these young researchers fulfil their career potential.”
An impressive role model for young researchers everywhere, Professor Green is also a staunch advocate for women taking up careers in the field. “I’m just one of many women in the field but I think it’s important for women in particular to know that there are so many more opportunities now for rewarding careers in research and science. Women are achieving and making real contributions to cancer research and I’d greatly encourage young women to think about how their multiple skill sets might work for them here in the future.”