December – and the start of summer – is readily welcomed by most West Australians. But along with our enviable outdoor lifestyle and ample sunshine is one far from desirable reality: melanoma.
Melanoma is currently the third most diagnosed cancer in Australia and is one of the most common cancers found in young adults. Australia has the highest rate in the world of the deadly skin cancer, with 1400 people diagnosed each year.
And up until recently, Sweden had a world leading expert in melanoma, Professor Jonas Nilsson.
Professor Nilsson came to WA’s Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research from Gothenburg, Sweden in 2020 to take up the position of the inaugural Chair of Melanoma Discovery. His aim? To improve the survival for melanoma patients in WA.
Professor Nilsson’s appointment in Perth was in part thanks to a group of dedicated supporters, who were moved to leave a legacy to recognise the wishes of 27-year-old Scott Kirkbride, who lost his life to melanoma in 2004.
Professor Nilsson said the current immunotherapy treatment (where a patient’s own immune system is harnessed to attack the cancer cells) that is available to melanoma patients in WA benefits around 50 per cent of people.
“The glass is definitely half full when it comes to treatment,” Professor Nilsson said.
“Fifty per cent of patients can now get very, very long responses or even cures. But if you flip to the other side of the coin, what about the rest of the patients? What can we do for them? That is where our research is going.”
Professor Nilsson and his team are working toward the approval in WA for a treatment called cell-therapy, where immune cells are taken from the tumour and ‘super-charged’ outside a patient’s body, and then reintroduced to the body in enormous numbers to help that person fight off the disease.
This treatment requires biobanking patient tumours and developing ‘humanised’ mice to design personalised cell therapies for individual patients.
“These are very advanced therapies (treatments), and they need specific labs and especially trained personnel,” Professor Nilsson said.
“Currently in Australia there is no hospital that offers this type of cell-therapy, so I am setting it up here.”
And while other labs are working on a ‘magic bullet’ breakthrough for melanoma patients, Professor Nilsson explained that this cell-therapy treatment has an immediate benefit, with the potential to save many lives.
“When I summarise my career 20 years from now, I want to say, ‘well, we didn’t find a magic bullet (or maybe we did), but at least we pushed what we could do in the lab all the way to the clinic, and we didn’t leave people behind’.
“We don’t want to think that just because we might not cure everyone; it is not good enough. Because (living with treatment) is still someone’s life, and it still offers hope.”
The Harry Perkins Institute has grown to become one of the nation’s leading medical research centres, where close-knit teams work together and with others around the world to focus on diseases that most affect your families. Visit the website to find out more.