Melanoma doctor’s high-stakes gamble to treat his brain cancer

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Pioneering a Breakthrough: Doctors Race to Save a Colleague’s Life

In a remarkable story of friendship, determination, and scientific innovation, two leading Australian cancer researchers have embarked on a mission to save the life of one of their own.

Professor Richard Scolyer and Professor Georgina Long, long-time collaborators and pioneers in the field of melanoma treatment, found themselves on opposite sides of the world when they each received the devastating news – Scolyer had been diagnosed with one of the most aggressive forms of brain cancer, glioblastoma.

Scolyer, a renowned pathologist, was on vacation in Poland when a seizure led to the discovery of the tumor nestled in the top right corner of his skull. Immediately, he and Long, a medical oncologist, knew they were facing an uphill battle.

Glioblastomas are notoriously aggressive, with most patients surviving less than a year after diagnosis. But Scolyer and Long were not ones to accept defeat. They had, after all, transformed the treatment of melanoma, a cancer that was once a death sentence.

“It didn’t sit right with me… to just accept certain death without trying something,” Scolyer says. “It’s an incurable cancer? Well, bugger that!”

Trailblazers in Melanoma

Thirty years ago, when Scolyer and Long first met as young doctors, advanced melanoma was considered an untreatable disease. But the duo saw an opportunity where others saw only a daunting challenge.

Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, and Scolyer and Long were determined to make a difference. They dedicated their careers to unlocking the secrets of this deadly disease, pioneering groundbreaking research that would ultimately save countless lives.

Their work at the Melanoma Institute Australia has been nothing short of revolutionary. Over the past decade, their team’s research on immunotherapy has dramatically improved outcomes for advanced melanoma patients, with half of them now essentially cured – a remarkable feat considering the dismal prognosis just a decade ago.

This “penicillin moment,” as Long calls it, has not only transformed the treatment of melanoma but is now being applied to other cancer types, saving even more lives.

Scolyer and Long’s impact has been so profound that they are now considered national treasures in Australia, with almost every citizen knowing someone whose life has been touched by their work. This year, they were jointly named Australians of the Year, a testament to their extraordinary contributions.

A Radical Plan

But as Scolyer and Long were transforming the field of cancer treatment, they were also forging an unbreakable bond. They shared a passion for their work, a love of exercise, and a relentless drive to reach their ambitious goal of zero melanoma deaths in Australia.

So, when Scolyer’s diagnosis came, Long was devastated. “I’m grieving… I my friend is going to be gone in 12 months,” she recalls. But her grief quickly turned to determination, as she pored over textbooks and research, formulating a radical plan to save her colleague’s life.

Inspired by their success in melanoma, Long decided to try a combination of immunotherapy drugs on Scolyer’s brain tumor – a strategy that had never been tested in glioblastoma before. The risks were enormous, with some oncologists warning that the experiment could kill Scolyer faster.

But Scolyer was undaunted. “It was a ‘no brainer,'” he jokes. And with Long’s unwavering support, he became the first brain cancer patient to undergo this cutting-edge treatment.

A Glimmer of Hope

Weeks after the initial scan that had shattered their worlds, Scolyer and Long looked at the results of the tumor analysis with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. What they saw was nothing short of remarkable.

Not only had the immunotherapy drugs reached Scolyer’s brain, but they had triggered an explosion of immune cells, giving the team hope that they were actively attacking the cancer cells. The average time for a glioblastoma to return is just six months after surgery, but eight months on, Scolyer showed no signs of active cancer.

The results have generated a cautious optimism, with the duo hoping that this breakthrough could not only prolong Scolyer’s life but also pave the way for new treatments that could help the 300,000 people diagnosed with brain cancer globally each year.

“The data that we’ve generated – I know it’s changing the field, and if I die tomorrow with that, I’m very proud,” Scolyer says.

Yet, the road ahead is still fraught with uncertainty. Scolyer’s prognosis remains grim, and even the experts are hesitant to call the treatment a revolution, preferring the term “encouraging.”

But Scolyer and Long are not ones to be deterred. They have faced the impossible before, and they are determined to do it again – this time, with Scolyer’s life on the line.

As they navigate this uncharted territory, the two friends find solace in the small victories, the additional milestones, and the moments of connection with Scolyer’s family. And through it all, they remain steadfast in their belief that their work can make a difference, not just for Scolyer, but for countless others facing the same devastating diagnosis.

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