Curing Australia’s national cancer

Melanoma is often referred to as Australia’s national cancer. Cancer Council funded researcher, Professor Grant McArthur, has dedicated his career to curing this devastating cancer which affects so many Australians.

Melanoma is a form of cancer that develops in skin cells. It is often referred to as Australia’s national cancer because, with over 14,000 Australians expected to be diagnosed this year, together with New Zealand we have the highest rates of melanoma in the world. It is the most common cancer in young Australians aged 15 to 40 years and sadly, melanoma takes the life of five Australians each day.

Professor Grant McArthur is the Executive Director of the internationally respected Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre. A medical oncologist by training, he has dedicated both his medical and research career towards reducing the impact of melanoma on our community. He’s driven to not only increase survivorship and quality of life from melanoma, but to achieve a complete and lifelong cure from this cancer type.

But his research career didn’t start with a focus on melanoma. Despite seeing many people affected by melanoma in his medical clinics, he was fascinated with the basic biology of cancer development and wanted to advance our ability to create new and more targeted cancer treatments.

In 2005, Professor McArthur was granted Cancer Council Sir Edward Dunlop Clinical Research Fellowship to advance his work developing innovative new cancer treatments. This prestigious grant aims to develop the careers of our most promising cancer researchers by supporting their salary and research costs for five years. For Professor McArthur, the Dunlop Fellowship gave him the unique opportunity to take time out from his busy medical practice and dedicate himself entirely to his research.

The ability of Cancer Council to support major individuals at critical points of their career where they can focus time and effort into research is so critical to getting high impact research that directly helps people affected by cancer.

With Cancer Council support, Professor McArthur was able to spend time connecting with research occurring around the world. That is what led him to a new discovery from a UK group. These researchers had identified a new cancer-causing gene called BRAF, and importantly, found that it was present in around half of all cases of melanoma.

At this time, treatment for advanced melanoma was relatively ineffective and survival was low. Professor McArthur immediately recognised that finding a treatment that could target the BRAF gene would have a huge impact on people diagnosed with melanoma.

Professor McArthur and his team had developed a lab-based test that was able to detect genetic changes in people affected by melanoma. This expertise, developed as part of his Cancer Council funded research, led them to become involved with a trial of a new therapy that targeted the cancer-causing changes in the BRAF gene. This was to be the world’s first trial of a targeted therapy for melanoma.

I can wholeheartedly say that my contribution to this research would not have happened without Cancer Council funding. It is highly unlikely I would’ve been able to obtain short term project funding for this work, so the support from Cancer Council gave me the time to tackle this big question.

The outcomes exceeded expectations. Following treatment with the new drug, trial participants saw dramatic results with most experiencing rapid cancer regression and increased survival. The success of this trial set the scene for many other targeted treatments to be developed, and ultimately revolutionising how we treat melanoma today.

Just a few years ago, the average life expectancy for stage 4 malignant melanoma was 9 months. Now it is out well beyond 2 years and we are seeing much better quality of life. That’s how fast research has changed things.

As the BRAF trial was underway, Professor McArthur became personally and professionally involved in another important advance in our battle against melanoma. In August 2007, a young Melbourne woman called Clare Oliver was fighting stage 4 melanoma. A patient of Professor McArthur, Clare had been an avid and regular solarium user.

Whilst there are many factors that influence a person’s risk of developing melanoma, the most influential - and preventable - is exposure to UV radiation. This exposure may come from the sun or from artificial sources like solariums.

Back when I first started working in melanoma, the treatments were not effective. The thing we did know is that over 95% of melanoma is caused by UV radiation from either the sun or solariums. So I tried to also be a strong advocate for prevention.

Chasing the ubiquitous Aussie tan, many people were attending solariums and being exposed to levels of UV radiation up to six times as strong as the midday summer sun. We now know that people who use a solarium before the age of 35 have a 59% greater risk of melanoma than those who do not use solariums.

At that time, the general public were not so aware of the health impacts of solariums. As Clare dealt with the significant health impacts of end-stage melanoma, she bravely used her remaining time and energy to publicly share her story, educate others about the dangers of solarium use and call for urgent government action.

In partnership with Cancer Council and Professor McArthur, Clare successfully lobbied for regulation of the commercial solarium industry. Consequently her home state banned commercial solariums in January 2015, and is now nationally banned. Whilst important policy was being changed, Clare was also driving a significant shift in public opinion. She urged people to “choose life, choose to be fair”, and these words, delivered alongside a Cancer Council education and awareness campaign, changed how many Australians saw sun exposure and tanning.

We’re now seeing falling rates of melanoma in some Australian populations and I think that is due to a combination of Cancer Council sun protection campaigns and the solarium ban.

For Professor McArthur, his work with people affected by cancer like Clare and the five years he spent as a full time cancer researcher, has fuelled his drive to find a cure for melanoma and successful treatments for cancer more generally. In addition to his promoting and leading work, Professor McArthur is now looking at how BRAF treatment can be combined with other therapies to maximise health outcomes. His wish is to see total deaths for melanoma at least halved before he retires, and with the support of Cancer Council he believes he will achieve that aim.

I absolutely support the Cancer Council vision, a cancer free future must absolutely be our aim. You have to dream big, our people affected by cancer demand us to do that on their behalf.

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