A Sylvania melanoma patient is taking part in groundbreaking research ahead of Skin Cancer Awareness Week (November 19-25).
Carrie Palmer, 47, noticed a lump in her knee, which turned out to be stage 3 melanoma, in October last year.
“It looked like a blood blister,” she said. “Purely for vanity reasons, coming into summer, I had it checked out. I thought it would go away but it got darker. I was never a sun worshipper, but as a child maybe more so.”
She had the tumour and all the affected lymph nodes removed. But her oncologist Professor Georgina Long, was concerned that without additional therapy, the cancer could come back.
The Melanoma Institute Australia placed the mother-of-two on a clinical trial of immunotherapy. The study examines the long-term affects of treatment, to see if the cancer will return in the next 10 years. Every two weeks for the past year, Ms Palmer has been getting infusions.
This research is being co-led by Professor Long, who was one of the professors to receive the GSK Award for Research Excellence.
The research has already tripled the life expectancy for some advanced melanoma patients.
Australia has the highest rates of melanoma in the world. More than 12,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma in Australia every year, according to Cancer Council NSW.
While most people with melanoma can be successfully treated through surgery if it is detected early, more than 1905 Australians die from the cancer each year.
Professor Long says immuno-oncology is the “penicillin moment” in cancer treatment.
She says advancing novel treatments like targeted therapies, which modify the actions of specific genes to stop the growth and spread of cancer, and immunotherapies, which uses the body’s immune system to fight cancer, could mean zero deaths from melanoma within a generation.
“The delivery of individualised immunotherapy according to response, has the potential to improve survival in both early and advanced stage melanoma patients and could essentially turn the cancer into a chronic condition,” she said,
“We’ve discovered how to leverage the relationship melanoma has with the immune system to allow a patient’s immune system to kill the cancer cells.
“This means we are moving towards melanoma no longer being a possible death sentence, but rather a treatable, chronic condition.”
“While we have these remarkable drugs, however, there are still a group of patients who are resistant. We’re starting to understand why patients develop resistance – and if we can tackle this by individualising and targeting therapy, we will impact not only melanoma but all cancers.”
The study is currently focused on how immunotherapies can be “personalised” for melanoma patients.
“I feel very lucky to be part of this historical trial because there’s only a few hundred people doing it,” Ms Palmer said. “I’ve got two more to go, and then I’ll have regular scans. In doing this, researchers will determine which treatment is best, and this is far less harsher on the body.”