Richard Scolyer was diagnosed with “the worst of the worst” brain tumour, with an average survival rate of less than a year but with thanks to his medical experiment his prognosis is on the up
A cancer doctor in Australia is racing against time as he desperately tries to cure his terminal brain tumour in a medical gamble.
Richard Scolyer was diagnosed with “the worst of the worst” brain tumour, with an average survival rate of less than a year. He told the BBC his subtype of glioblastoma was so aggressive it felt like a ticking time bomb. But instead of spiralling into pessimism and accepting his fate, he decided to try to do the impossible and find a cure. Glioblastomas, found in the brain’s connective tissue, are notoriously aggressive with just 5% of all patients living beyond five years.
“It didn’t sit right with me… to just accept certain death without trying something. It’s an incurable cancer? Well bugger that!”, Professor Scolyer said. Thirty years ago, when he met Professor Georgina Long advanced melanoma was a death sentence and Australia has long had the highest rate of skin cancer on the planet. Now, anyone who gets a diagnosis or treatment for melanoma worldwide does so because of the work pioneered by the Melanoma Institute that the pair now lead. Buoyed by their work in the skin cancer field, he felt determined to do the same for his prognosis.
Professor Long formulated a radical plan to treat Professor Scolyer based on what had worked in melanoma but which had never been tested in brain cancer. She joked to the BBC that trying the treatment was a “no brainer”. Their research with melanoma found that immunotherapy works better when a combination of drugs is used and when they are administered before any surgery to remove a tumour.
Professor Scolyer soon 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 markers, which boosts the cancer-detecting powers of the drugs. After analysis of the tumour that had been removed from his brain, they found the drugs had successfully reached his brain and there was an explosion of immune cells — that the team hoped would attack his cancer cells. The average time for a glioblastoma cancer to return is six months post-surgery. But eight months on, after continued immunotherapy, he is showing no signs of active cancer and his brain is “normalising”.
There is now hope their experiment could help the 300,000 people diagnosed with brain cancer globally each year. Another doctor, Roger Stupp, told the BBC: “Promising is a difficult word… Encouraging, I would call it. It’s not a revolution, but it is still a step forward.” He wants to see Professor Scolyer reach 12 or 18 without recurrence. But Professor Scolyer says he has already beaten the worst-case scenario and would have died before now if they hadn’t of experimented.