Fundraising boost for new melanoma trial offers hope to patients with brain metastases

A $110,000 donation to a new trial treating melanoma brain metastases will help open additional research sites around Australia, offering hope to patients, like Peter Wilson, who have melanoma that has spread to the brain.

The donation is the second made by the Australian Skin Cancer Foundation, with the $210,000 total funding being raised through the Foundation’s Mission Melanoma campaigns, in which hundreds of Australians walked thousands of kilometres in the name of melanoma research.

The clinical trial receiving the funds, called the BETTER trial, is examining whether a combination of immunotherapy drugs and targeted radiotherapy will improve outcomes for patients with melanoma brain metastases, who have neurological symptoms or who are taking steroids to control these symptoms.

Peter Wilson, one of the thousands of Australians with melanoma brain metastases, said his shock diagnosis was devastating for his family.

“I’d had a small red lump removed from my back nine years ago which turned out to be melanoma. After it was removed, I had regular six-monthly check-ups to monitor my skin which were all fine. In July 2021, whilst I was at work, I collapsed and was rushed to hospital. Scans showed I had 11 spots in my brain and a large lung mass which were subsequently confirmed to be melanoma,” Mr Wilson said.

“It was just impossible to comprehend. To go from feeling completely healthy to being told it was a coin flip whether I’d survive for even just another five years was truly shattering for my wife, kids and me. It was a whirlwind of brain surgery, stereotactic radiation, and immunotherapy drugs within weeks of my diagnosis.”

“Fortunately, I responded well to the treatment, but I was one of the lucky ones. Clinical trials like this are so important to move towards eliminating the chance of other people going through what my family and I did; hearing those terrible odds, having to endure the side effects of treatment, and living with the fear it might not work. Research is the only way to improve the chances for others who may become victims of this cruel disease,” Mr Wilson added.

Melanoma that spreads to the brain occurs in more than a third of patients with an advanced melanoma diagnosis. Once melanoma metastasises in the brain, patients often have a poor prognosis and a short life expectancy.

Dr Malaka Ameratunga, Co-Chair of the BETTER trial and head of Molecular Oncology and Rare Cancers at The Alfred, said the trial, being run at the hospital, could change how people like Peter are treated all around the world.

“Melanoma brain metastasis is so severe and complex that many patients are unable to participate in clinical trials, resulting in limited treatment options,” Dr Ameratunga said.

“Current treatments, including immune-suppressing steroids, have long-term side effects and may reduce the effectiveness of immune therapy. We are hopeful that the BETTER trial will not only improve outcomes but also offer much better quality of life for patients while they undergo treatment.”

“This is the first time anyone has investigated a combined treatment of immunotherapy drugs nivolumab and ipilimumab with bevacizumab and targeted radiotherapy. If participants respond well, we are hoping to expand the trial to more sites, with more participants, so we can gather more data and change how we treat this deadly disease,” Dr Ameratunga added.

Australian Skin Cancer Foundation (ASCF) Founder, Mr Jay Allen OAM, said the group was thrilled its first major fundraising initiative, which received 1,770 donations, kickstarted research for a group of melanoma patients that are typically underrepresented.

“ASCF is excited to support this landmark trial with a second donation. We can’t wait to follow the BETTER trial as it begins recruiting and gathering that all important data,” Mr Allen said.

“To paraphrase Carl Sagan, ‘something incredible is waiting to be known’ and that’s what clinical trials do. They help us discover that incredible thing that can literally change the world and what we know about it.”

“Melanoma research is an incredibly emotional but exciting space and Australia is lucky to be at the forefront, thanks to our fantastic researchers and organisations like Melanoma and Skin Cancer Trials, who are behind the BETTER trial,” Mr Allen said.  

The initial phase of the BETTER trial will commence at the Westmead Hospital in Sydney and The Alfred in Melbourne, and will be managed by Melanoma and Skin Cancer Trials / Research Centre.

More information about the trial, including eligibility, can be found here