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Richard Scolyer: Top doctor remains brain cancer-free after a year

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By Tiffanie Turnbull,BBC News, Sydney

Getty Images Professor Georgina Long and Professor Richard ScolyerGetty Images

Professor Georgina Long and Professor Richard Scolyer are the joint 2024 Australians of the year

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

The esteemed pathologist’s experimental therapy is based on his own pioneering research on melanoma.

Prof Scolyer’s subtype of glioblastoma is so aggressive most patients survive less than a year.

But on Tuesday the 57-year-old announced his latest MRI scan had again showed no recurrence of the tumour.

“To be honest, I was more nervous than I have been for any previous scan,” he told the BBC.

“I’m just thrilled and delighted… couldn’t be happier.”

Prof Scolyer is one of the country’s most respected medical minds, and was this year named Australian of the Year alongside his colleague and friend Georgina Long, in recognition of their life-changing work on melanoma.

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%.

It’s that research that Prof Long, alongside a team of doctors, is using to treat Prof Scolyer – in the hope of finding a cure for his cancer too.

In melanoma, Prof Long – herself a renowned medical oncologist – and her team discovered that immunotherapy works better when a combination of drugs is used, and when they are administered before any surgery to remove a tumour. And so, Prof Scolyer last year 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.

After a tough couple of months of treatment at the start of the year – spent dealing with epileptic seizures, liver issues and pneumonia – Prof Scolyer says he is feeling healthier.

“I’m the best I have felt for yonks,” he said, adding that he’s back to exercising every day – which for him often means a casual 15km (9.3 mile) jog.

“It certainly doesn’t mean that my brain cancer is cured… but it’s just nice to know that it hasn’t come back yet, so I’ve still got some more time to enjoy my life with my wife Katie and my three wonderful kids.”

The results so far have generated huge excitement that the duo may be on the cusp of a discovery which could one day help the roughly 300,000 people diagnosed with brain cancer globally each year.

Prof Scolyer and Prof Long have previously said the odds of a cure are “minuscule”, but they hope the experimental treatment will prolong Prof Scolyer’s life and will soon translate into clinical trials for glioblastoma patients.

They currently have a scientific paper under review, which details results from the first weeks of Prof Scolyer’s treatment, but Prof Long stresses that they are still a long way off developing an approved and regulated course of treatment.

“We’ve generated a whole heap of data, to then make a foundation for that next step, so that we can help more people,” she said.

“We’re not there yet. What we have to really focus on is showing that this pre-surgery, combination immunotherapy type of approach works in a large number of people.”

Roger Stupp – the doctor after whom the current protocol for treating glioblastomas is named – earlier this year told the BBC Prof Scolyer’s prognosis was “grim”, and that it was too early to tell if the treatment is working.

He added that while Mr Scolyer’s earlier results were “encouraging”, he wanted to see him reach 12 months, even 18, without recurrence before getting excited.

Prof Scoyler said he’s already proud of the data his treatment has generated and grateful to his family and his medical team for supporting “this experiment”.

“I feel proud of the team that I work with. I feel proud that they’re willing to take the risk in going down this path.”

“[It] provides some hope that maybe this is a direction that’s worth investigating more formally.”

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