Melanoma expert 'patient zero' in brain cancer fight

Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS

A leading melanoma pathologist has become the first person in the world to receive a personalised brain cancer vaccine as he experiments with treatments in the face of an incurable diagnosis.

Melanoma Institute Australia co-medical director Professor Richard Scolyer, 56, was diagnosed with grade 4 glioblastoma in June, a form of brain cancer with no known cure.

As standard treatment for the fatal disease had not changed in nearly two decades, Prof Scolyer and fellow MIA co-director Professor Georgina Long began applying their melanoma expertise to try to save Richard's life and accelerate brain cancer research.

In a speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday, Prof Scolyer revealed he had trialled a personalised brain cancer vaccine along with other experimental treatments, underpinned by science.

"I have not had the standard treatment protocol for brain cancer, and instead stand here today as patient zero in what may become the new frontier of brain cancer treatment," he said.

"I am proud to say, that only days ago, I had another world-first treatment for my brain cancer: a personalised cancer vaccine with combination immunotherapy, instead of standard treatment."

He said the vaccine was designed to boost his immune reaction against brain cancer, targeting tumour cells and preventing recurrence.

Prof Long said the pair analysed the tumour's genome, allowing them to identify what was unique about it and therefore choose what treatment would have high potential for Prof Scolyer's immune system to fight it.

Prof Scolyer previously became the first brain cancer patient in the world to have had combination neoadjuvant immunotherapy. 

While it was too early to assess the impact of the vaccine, the melanoma experts said there had been scientific breakthroughs as a result of the other immunotherapy Prof Scolyer had received.

This included a 10-fold increase in immune cells, which were activated against an enemy and bound to the drug, proving there is no blood-brain barrier as previously believed.

Prof Long said the pair couldn't have hoped for better results.

"The neoadjuvant combination immunotherapy was doing what we had seen it do in melanoma, but this time it was doing it in Richard's brain cancer," she said.

The experts said existing medicine was not curing as many cancers as it could and encouraged their colleagues to "think big and be courageous".

"Our brain cancer advances, based on one single patient and one single tumour, are the tip of the iceberg of what can be achieved when cancer researchers and clinicians, underpinned by science, are brave and prepared to challenge the status quo," Prof Long said.

After his diagnosis, Prof Scolyer was given a prognosis of six to nine months to live and knew experimenting with treatment could shorten that.

"The potential benefits are immense, I may survive, I may beat the unbeatable and in doing so we will massively impact the whole brain cancer field," he said.

"At worst, I'll leave the legacy of increased scientific knowledge to benefit future brain cancer patients."