Westmead winning battle against world’s biggest cancer killer

Dr Rina Hui and Peter Suffolk.

Westmead Hospital patient Peter Suffolk is living proof that Westmead Hospital’s cancer team are saving people from one of the world’s deadliest diseases: lung cancer.

Facing death after exhausting all treatment options for his stage 4 cancer, Peter’s last option was to join a global immunotherapy trial.

Peter was the first-ever Australian lung cancer patient to receive an immunotherapy drug on the trial.

Seven years later, he is alive, well, and enjoying his favourite hobbies.

“I’m so grateful for what the doctors have done for me,” Peter said.

“I couldn’t feel any better right now. How do you start to repay something like this? You can say thank you but it just isn’t enough.”

In Australia, the trial was led by Professor Rina Hui at Westmead Hospital’s Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre. Dr Hui is also a professor at the University of Sydney’s Westmead Clinical School.

Global results of the trial showed that 25 per cent of stage 4 cancer patients with a particular tumour marker are surviving past five years, compared to only five per cent before the immunotherapy era.

Prof Hui said without the trial, Peter would not be alive.

“Seven years ago my patient would have died without immunotherapy,” Prof Hui said.

“It is truly remarkable how this drug works.”

Prof Hui said immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that releases the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer.

“There are huge numbers of lung cancer patients that cannot be treated with targeted cancer treatments,” Prof Hui said.

“Most lung cancers are found quite late because the lungs are a spongy organ – this means the cancer has already spread before being detected.

“Cancer camouflages itself and puts a brake on a person’s immune system. Immunotherapy is designed to take the blind fold off the immune system, exposing cancer as the bad guy.”  

While Prof Hui’s patient Peter has had a good result, not all patients will respond like this – leading doctors to continue the hunt for a treatment that will save more people.

“Immunotherapy alone without chemotherapy is always an attractive option for those who have a high level of a tumour marker, but only thirty per cent of lung cancer patients have this marker,” Prof Hui said.

“We decided to trial a mix of immunotherapy and chemotherapy to see if more patients will respond.

“We found that doing so can expand the number of patients who will benefit from adding immunotherapy to the standard chemotherapy.

“Studies so far found that the combination of immunotherapy and chemotherapy saw seventy per cent of stage 4 lung cancer patients living beyond a year, compared to fifty per cent of patients who only received chemotherapy.

“The good thing about that is the patients who respond will respond for a longer period of time. They will have a deeper and durable response that will last longer than chemotherapy alone.

“Westmead Hospital continues to have a lot of trials and I encourage patients to consider joining them.”

Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD) chief executive Graeme Loy congratulated Dr Hui and the Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre team.

“What a fantastic outcome for patients in western Sydney and the future of cancer treatment around the world,” Graeme said.

“Dr Hui’s work sounds very promising. I’m pleased to see the Westmead Precinct leading the charge against cancer.”

The trial has also attracted praise from Westmead Precinct partners including the University of Sydney and The Westmead Institute for Medical Research.

Professor Chris Peck, director of Sydney University’s Westmead Initiative commended Dr Hui on the accomplishment.

Patient looks at his trophy
Peter received a trophy of a cricketer to mark his ‘century’ treatment milestone last year.

“Our researchers work with clinicians, patients and educators across the Westmead Precinct to develop innovative treatments and improve the lives of people of western Sydney,” Prof Peck said.

Westmead Institute for Medical Research director Professor Tony Cunningham described the results as ‘wonderful’.  

“Decades of medical research, including work carried out at The Westmead Institute for Medical Research, is now coming to fruition, demonstrating that immunotherapy treatments can be an effective component of treatment for a number of cancer types.

“It is wonderful to see that this particular treatment, Keytruda, will now be more readily available to the patients who are likely to benefit from it the most.”

The Westmead Precinct is one of the largest health, education, research and training precincts in Australia. Westmead’s precinct partners, including three major hospitals, three world-leading medical research institutes and the largest research-intensive pathology service in NSW, are working together to establish the hub as a workable, liveable and accessible global health city.

The over $1 billion Westmead Redevelopment – including the Westmead Hospital redevelopments and stage one of The Children’s Hospital at Westmead – has identified the importance of global health precincts to support its ageing and expanding community.

Other future expansion plans at Westmead include a commitment by the University of Sydney and NSW Government to establish a second campus, and $619 million for stage 2 redevelopments at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

For more information about the Westmead Precinct visit: http://www.westmeadproject.health.nsw.gov.au/precinct/westmead-precinct

For any enquiries about lung cancer treatment please speak with your treating clinician or ask your doctor about suitable clinical trials.