Melanoma can be deceitful—the tiniest mark on your skin could represent a very aggressive cancer that has spread on the inside, if it not detected early. Once melanoma metastasises by spreading into other areas of the body, the prognosis is usually devastating, with the five-year survival rate for advanced stage melanoma only 15% to 20%.
The good news is that researchers like Dr Tobias Bald at QIMR Berghofer are world-leaders in cancer immunotherapy, which has been a ‘game changer’ for melanoma patients. Immunotherapy has been called the fourth pillar of cancer treatment, alongside surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, and involves training the body’s own immune system to fight and destroy cancer cells.
Melanoma is one of the few cancers that has seen early, breakthrough success with a positive response to immunotherapy treatment. Ten years ago, there was no therapeutic options for metastatic melanoma patients and chemotherapy resistance was—and still is today—a serious issue for advanced stage patients.
The first patient immunotherapy trials for melanoma started in Australia in 2010—which was a world-first—and since then researchers like Dr Bald have seen significant improvement in five-year survival rate for patients with melanoma. Many of the patients from the 2010 trial are alive today. The treatment has not only prolonged survival for many, it has even shown ‘complete responses’ in some patients, meaning the tumour is not detected anymore. Long-term, longitudinal studies will reveal whether these patients have been cured by immunotherapy.
Clinical trials are currently underway in Australia, with the goal being to make the immunotherapy treatment more accessible to all patients over the next few years Support from the community is crucial to ensure we can continue to identify novel drug targets, and translate them into the clinic to treat melanoma patients.
'Immunotherapy is the biggest step forward we’ve ever had with treating advanced melanoma patients. In the next 5 to 10 years we expect to see more complete responses to this treatment.'