Doctor remains “cancer-free” a year after world-first treatment

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A year after undergoing a world-first treatment for glioblastoma (GBM), Australian doctor Professor Richard Scolyer remains cancer-free.

Prof Scolyer was diagnosed with a subtype of GBM which is so aggressive that most patients survive less than a year. But this week, the 57-year-old announced his latest MRI had once again showed no recurrence of the tumour.

Alongside his colleague, renowned medical oncologist Professor Georgia Long, Prof Scolyer was named Australian of the Year for his research on melanoma, which is now informing his own experimental therapy.

As co-directors of the Melanoma Institute Australia, over the past decade the pair’s research on immunotherapy, which uses the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells, has dramatically improved outcomes for advanced melanoma patients globally. Half are now essentially cured, up from less than 10%.

Prof Long and her team discovered that immunotherapy works better when a combination of drugs are used, and when they are administered before any surgery to remove a tumour. Last year, Prof Scolyer became the first brain cancer patient to ever have combination, pre-surgery immunotherapy. He is also the first to be administered a vaccine personalised to his tumour's characteristics, which boosts the cancer-detecting powers of the drugs.

Although the pair have previously said the odds of a cure are “miniscule”, they hope the treatment will prolong Prof Scolyer’s life and translate into clinical trials for GBM patients in future. They currently have a scientific paper under review, but it has been stressed that they are still a long way off developing an approved and regulated course of treatment.

Professor Garth Cruickshank, Chair of our Scientific and Medical Advisory Board, said: “Dr Scolyer’s story is exciting because it draws attention to how game-changing it would be for so many condemned patients if this novel approach to treatment of his glioblastoma did result in a cure.

“People vary in their response to treatments. Indeed, very few people with GBM – perhaps 2-5% – may live up to five years, but most succumb earlier particularly if they are older, and their tumours are larger. In many cases we can say that age, extent of tumour (stage) and surgery, and other individual factors will all modify how the tumour behaves. Thus, a person with a small glioblastoma who has had good surgery and chemo and radiotherapy and is young (under 60) will have a good chance of surviving 18 months. One would need to see such a person surviving well at two years or more to start to consider whether this heralds a breakthrough.

“This new treatment is novel and interesting and applied in the kind of innovative way that we need to see researchers trying, so we all hope that this is offers the key to a better future for brain tumour sufferers.”

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