Twelve months on from a world-first brain cancer treatment

Joint Australians of the Year Professors Richard Scolyer and Georgina Long have made headlines around the world for their work in cancer research. InDaily talked to the pair to hear what comes next.

Jun 20, 2024, updated Jun 20, 2024
Georgina Long and Richard Scolyer have been at the forefront of Melanoma research for years. Photo: NADC / Salty Dingo

Georgina Long and Richard Scolyer have been at the forefront of Melanoma research for years. Photo: NADC / Salty Dingo

Richard Scolyer was diagnosed with terminal Stage 4 Glioblastoma in June 2023. He was given six to nine months to live.

Speaking to InDaily 12 months on from his diagnosis, Scolyer is the first brain cancer patient in the world to have received a combination, neoadjuvant pre-surgery immunotherapy approach.

He was given immunotherapy treatment before having any surgery to remove his tumour, in line with the approach he and Long take to treat melanoma at the Melanoma Institute Australia (MIA).

“We’ve been working on using immunotherapy for over a decade and a half now,” Long said.

“What we worked out is if you get a patient with Stage 3 [Melanoma] and use the immunotreatment (sic) while the cancer is there… so the immune system can train itself better against the cancer, then we get even better results and patients are much less likely to develop Stage 4 Melanoma,” she said.

“That is better than our current standard, because our current standard for Stage 4 is remove the tumour and then you mop up with your immunotherapy afterwards. But simply by moving it forward before surgery you get this extra benefit simply by training the immune system more effectively.

“When Richard was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, and I looked in the literature and it hadn’t changed since I was a trainee, since I was training in oncology. As a specialist, I thought why don’t we try our latest and greatest in Melanoma with this.”

While Scolyer’s MRI scans remain clear of recurrence of his tumour at this stage, the pair said the treatment was not yet at a place where it could become widely accessible.

“It breaks my heart at how people may not understand the process and they just want a treatment that they believe is a cure, but we don’t know it is. We really, really, really don’t know,” Long said.

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“We’re hopeful that the trial will open soon, we’re working as hard as we can. That’s the next step is to do clinical trials to prove that this is actually worthwhile, because you can do harm if you don’t do the testing of drugs properly.

“But it’s very hard for the general public to understand that, when they hear about the one case that’s doing well, but we don’t know if it really is.”

The pair were hopeful for the treatment’s future, noting the willingness of Australians to contribute to medical research as they continue their work at the MIA.

“Australia has the highest incidence of melanoma anywhere in the world… it gives us the opportunity to perform research,” Scolyer said.

“It also says something about Australians who are incredibly generous about wanting to make a difference and participate in things that won’t necessarily help them but will help future patients.

“I think all Australians should be very proud of who they are and how they want to contribute to make a difference.”

Based in Sydney, the Melanoma Institute Australia is the world’s largest melanoma treatment and research facility. Co-medical directors Scolyer and Long were appointed to lead the institute’s mission of zero deaths from melanoma by 2030.

“Nothing is ever perfect until we get to zero deaths from melanoma, and every step of the way we’re looking at ways we can improve things,” Scolyer said.

“To get us to zero deaths from melanoma, prevention is better than cure… we want all Australians to enjoy this beautiful country, but protect their body from the damage of ultraviolet radiation.”

Georgina Long and Richard Scolyer are speaking at the Australia Day Council of South Australia’s 2024 Australian of the Year Luncheon on June 21. They will be joined by Young South Australian of the Year Tiahni Adamson, as well as SA Local Hero Rachael Zaltron, SA Senior Australian of the Year Sister Meredith Evans, and SA Australian of the Year Tim Jarvis.

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