Young doctor in war against melanoma epidemic

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Young doctor in war against melanoma epidemic

Despite all the warnings and the ‘Slip, Slop, Slap" campaign, there is a world-wide melanoma epidemic.  It's now the most common cancer affecting young people aged from 15 to 39, although children are being diagnosed with the usually fatal cancer at three times the usual rate.

Enter Dr Jason Waithman, a Research Fellow at The University of Western Australia's affiliate Telethon Kids Institute. Aged 37 and with a wife and three young children (and another on the way) he's leading the charge to fight it and develop a vaccine against it. 

Talking about his most recent ‘cure cancer' grant (a National Health and Medical Research Council Career Development Fellowship) and his tireless determination to beat melanoma, Dr Waithman uses words you might associate with a SAS top-brass: ‘generals', ‘killers', ‘recruits', ‘marines', ‘battle zones', ‘train and arm'.

And it really is a war zone, with Australia the world's worst place for melanoma.  "In Queensland, 56 per 100,000 men and 41 per 100,000 women get melanoma," he said.  "The next worst place has much lower rates, which are 21 men and 17 women out of 100,000.

"The incidence is going up and we don't know why.  At Princess Margaret Hospital, there are three cases in children."

Dr Waithman is excited about new tools that harness the body's own immune system to fight tumours.  "The journal Science named these tools the ‘Breakthrough of the Year 2013' and it's these tools that we're researching now.  It involves manipulating a patient's T cells (the marines in the battle zone) to make them target tumour cells.  T cells naturally attack infections, but are now being trained to go to war against cancer."

Dr Waithman's research builds on decades of work by scientists around the world in this new frontier in the battle against one of the most aggressive cancers.

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