“Immunotherapy is the biggest breakthrough in medicine in our generation”: Associate Professor Alex Menzies from Melanoma Institute Australia.
If there is reason to have faith in the scientists, immunologists, virologists and oncologists racing to develop a vaccine for coronavirus, it is the stunning progress they are having in reducing deaths from what is called “Australia’s cancer”.
A decade ago, a diagnosis of advanced or stage four melanoma was effectively a death sentence within six to nine months.
But a leading medical oncologist, Associate Professor Alex Menzies from Melanoma Institute Australia, believes immunotherapy treatments – using the body’s immune system to attack the cancer cells – mean 50 per cent of these patients are surviving long enough to be considered cured.
Despite decades of warnings about the danger of sun exposure, more than 1700 Australians are estimated to have died from melanoma last year.
Remarkably, Associate Professor Menzies believes the latest developments in immunotherapy could halve that number this year.
“Immunotherapy is the biggest breakthrough in medicine in our generation,” he said. “Across the whole body of medicine, I think it’s been the biggest breakthrough potentially since penicillin.”
The statistics for melanoma are still confronting.
According to the institute, one Australian is diagnosed every 30 minutes – the highest rate along with New Zealand in the world.
It is also the most common cancer in this country among 15- to 39-year-olds.
What has changed the outlook for advanced cases is the wider use of such immunotherapy drugs as Keytruda (pembrolizumab), Opdivo (or nivolumab) and Yervoy (ipilimumab) – the latter two combined for the first time only in 2016 – including after surgery for stage three patients.
“There are more people receiving the treatment to benefit from the treatment,” Associate Professor Menzies said.
He believes melanoma is now one of the success stories in cancer treatment.
“Melanoma is still Australia’s cancer,” he said. “It’s still a problem all the way from primary care all the way to sadly the 50 per cent of patients who we can’t cure.
“As much as the fact we’ve made some great advances, we’re only halfway there. Australian researchers now need to finish the job.”
The next step is working out why the other 50 per cent of patients with stage four cancer do not respond to immunotherapy. Associate Professor Menzies believes the type of melanoma is one reason but other factors are not yet understood.
While more than 1700 Australians are estimated to have died from melanoma last year, that rate could be halved this year.
Immunotherapy is also offering hope for treating other cancers, with potential for treating certain types of breast, bowel, lung, head and neck, bladder and stomach cancers.
The institute, the world’s largest not-for-profit organisation devoted to melanoma clinical care, research and teaching, aims to keep improving results for patients through such measures as better access to cancer psychologists to address the unknown psychological effects of immunotherapy and more public health programs to reduce the incidence of the disease.
“Australian researchers now need to finish the job”: Associate Professor Alexander Menzies at Melanoma Institute Australia last year.
“Too many people in society are taken too young,” Associate Professor Menzies said. “Everyone deserves to have a fulfilling healthy life and we want to do our part.”