Professor David Morris leading the way in peritonectomy surgery

Leader: Professor David Morris is the leading peritonectomy surgeon in the country. Picture: Tamara Dean
Leader: Professor David Morris is the leading peritonectomy surgeon in the country. Picture: Tamara Dean

When Professor David Morris introduced a life-saving surgery to Australia in 1995, he started out doing about three a year.

Last week he did four of the procedures.

Peritonectomy is now a common surgery at St George Hospital, saving many lives each year. 

The surgery takes 12 hours on average and removes a cancer, called peritoneal mesothelioma, from the abdomen. The cancer is strongly linked to asbestos exposure.

“It has been a really interesting 20 years in that we have kind of taken something that everybody thought was crazy, and now we can cure half of the patients in many of the types of tumours that we treat,” Professor Morris said.

“And all of those patients would otherwise die. There is no other curative treatment for them. So it has been good fun.

“It has become a more mainstream treatment, and we have been involved in developing that, and we have a kind of collaboration with a number of units around the world.”

Recently, St George Hospital addressed a growing list of patients waiting for peritonectomy surgery, which sat at about 25 patients. Mr Morris said the goal was to clear the list by the end of the year.

“The problem has been that during the winter our ICU has filled up with patients with pneumonia and so on, and so we lose operation days because we don’t have beds to put the patients in afterwards, so we got quite behind and our waiting list blew out,” he said.

“But the hospital is trying very hard to address that … and I’m confident we can get on top of the waiting list.”

The main cause of peritoneal mesothelioma is ingestion of asbestos fibres.

However, Professor Morris said a growing rate of female patients were being diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma and there was a possible link between the cancer and certain talcum powder products. He said manufacturers had already changed their talcum products to no longer use dangerous mineral fibres, but there was a lot more research to be done in that field.

St George Hospital is still the leading centre for peritonectomy surgery in the country, led by Professor Morris. He said there were small practices in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth as well.

“We are by far the leading unit in the country for peritonectomy. And it was something that in the early years we perhaps did three in a year, and I have done four this week.”

He said of the peritoneal mesothelioma patients who were operated on, the cure rate was about 50 per cent. 

Professor Morris said he had a great team to work with at St George Hospital. He said there were two surgeons capable of doing the surgery at the hospital, himself and Dr Nayef Alzarani. A large team of medical practitioners also work alongside them including oncologists, anesthetists and nurses.

Professor Morris also works with a team of researchers to develop drugs, and he was excited about a couple of promising projects they were looking at implementing.

Professor Morris said they had a great relationship with Saudi Arabia, and he often trained surgeons from that country who were sent to Australia to learn the procedure.

Professor Morris said he had done well over 1000 peritonectomy surgeries now, since moving from the UK in the 1990s.

Professor Morris also operates on other cancers in the abdomen, such as colon cancer and appendix tumours.