Winner of the Outstanding Cancer Researcher of the Year
Professor Scolyer is a nine-time recipient of previous NSW Premier's Awards for Outstanding Cancer Research, including the Wildfire Highly Cited Publication Award.
He is the Conjoint Medical Director of Melanoma Institute Australia (MIA), Senior Staff Specialist in Tissue Pathology and Diagnostic Oncology at the Royal Prince Alfred (RPA) Hospital and NSW Health Pathology, and Conjoint Professor at The University of Sydney.
Making a difference in melanoma research
Professor Scolyer’s research focuses on melanoma, the third most common cancer in Australian men and women. Early in his career, he accepted a role at RPA’s Sydney Melanoma Unit (now MIA) that allowed him to split his time working as a diagnostic pathologist and a melanoma researcher.
Professor John Thompson AO, who was heading the Unit, encouraged him to perform research in melanoma, particularly melanoma pathology, and bring together clinical and pathological aspects of the disease. As a registrar, Professor Scolyer was mentored by world-renowned melanoma pathologist Professor Stan McCarthy AO.
At the time, there was no effective therapy for melanoma besides surgery. A diagnosis of advanced melanoma was often considered a death sentence.
“I wanted to understand what was driving melanoma, to see if we could put the brakes on and improve outcomes,” he says.
“There was a wealth of patient data and pathology specimens. It was an opportunity to really make a difference by performing research to improve outcomes for patients and make more accurate diagnoses – to really take this field to the next level.”
“Academic pathologists play an important role in performing scientific research. They are uniquely placed as a bridge between clinicians, who are managing patients face to face, and scientific researchers.”
- Professor Richard Scolyer
A career of research milestones
In 2006, Professor Scolyer was working in a research team at the MIA that was awarded a National Health & Medical Research Council program grant.
“I was a pretty junior researcher at the time, and I’m thankful to Professor Rick Kefford [the medical oncologist at MIA] for putting me on board as a chief investigator on that grant,” Professor Scolyer says. “He recognised the complementary skills of the entire team.”
One of Professor Scolyer’s key pathological research findings was discovering the important role of the immune system in therapeutic responses. This helped to shape the design of targeted therapy and immunotherapy clinical trials.
Immunotherapy has proven to be extremely effective in treating advanced melanoma. Professor Scolyer recalls his Melanoma Institute Co-Medical Director Georgina Long calling immunotherapy a ‘penicillin moment of cancer treatment’.
“Now about half of people with advanced melanoma are alive in five years. This represents a 10-times increase over a decade,” Professor Scolyer says. “To be part of the journey [to improve survival rates] and be able to influence that is humbling.”
The 'secret sauce' of success
Professor Scolyer says his success would not have been possible without the foresight and leadership of several colleagues at MIA and beyond. He feels particularly fortunate to have worked closely with other recipients of the Outstanding Cancer Researcher of the Year, including MIA Conjoint Medical Director Professor Georgina Long AO, Professor John Thompson AO, Professor Bruce Armstrong AM and Professor Rick Kefford AM.
“I think the team’s bond of collegiality is the ‘secret sauce’ – people are keen to pitch in, and because of that we have achieved great things together,” Professor Scolyer says.
The program of research has also been successful because it has kept patients front and centre.
“Our research is really driven by the clinical questions that come up every Friday morning when we are presenting our most difficult patients at our melanoma multidisciplinary team meetings,” Professor Scolyer says. “The research program is designed around the patient journey – from prevention, diagnosis and management, to supportive care, survivorship and health economics.”
The team members are grateful for the ongoing support of their research.
“The funding from the NH&MRC program grant and funding through the Cancer Institute NSW has allowed us to expand our research program and go from strength to strength.”
Professor Scolyer’s team is pressing on with research on many clinical topics, including why some patients do not respond to immunotherapy, or become resistant; if there are pathological predictors of which patients will respond to neoadjuvant therapy; and what causes melanomas that occur inside the body, or on non-sun-exposed areas of the body.
“It is our responsibility to make the biggest difference we can for melanoma patients, and we won’t stop until we deliver on our goal at MIA of zero deaths from melanoma.”