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Hopes experimental ocular melanoma drug will save Perth mother’s life

St Vincent's Hospital ocular melanoma

A West Australian mother-of-three who has already lost one eye to ocular melanoma has travelled to New South Wales to receive an experimental treatment that she hopes will save her from the rare form of cancer.

Perth woman Ms Stacey Charteris is being treated with immunotherapy drug Tebentafusp as part of a trial at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital.

The therapy has been found to improve overall survival rates for patients with metastatic ocular melanoma in clinical trials overseas, with St Vincent’s being the first Australian trial site.

To date, international studies have shown a 50% reduction of the risk of deaths in patients with metastasised ocular melanoma, a disease that has had no curative treatment.

“It’s the first type of drug we know can help these patients who are otherwise facing a lethal disease,” St Vincent’s head of oncology Professor Anthony Joshua said.

In 2016 at the age of 38 and pregnant with her third child, Charteris was diagnosed with ocular melanoma, an aggressive eye cancer that approximately 150 Australians are diagnosed with each year.

According to The Western Australian, she was concerned about the potential impact of radiation therapy on her unborn child at 20 weeks, so she decided to have surgery to remove the tumour and her eye.

St Vincent’s head of oncology Professor Anthony Joshua. Image: 9News/St Vincent’s Hospital

She was told that the likelihood of it spreading was high. Her son, Phoenix, was born on 17 May 2017 and Charteris went four years cancer-free. But following a six-monthly scan in December 2020, metastasis – the development of secondary malignant growths at a distance from a primary site of cancer – were found on her liver.

According to a Go Fund Me page that has now raised more than $28,000 for her, Charteris commenced an immunotherapy trial in Perth in February, but after several rounds she couldn’t continue because the tumours were not responding, and getting worse.

Until recently, her family said there hadn’t been a known treatment specifically for ocular melanoma. But just as she was finishing the initial trial, she and her medical team became aware of the Tebentafusp trial at St Vincent’s.

Adding to her troubles is the necessity to travel to Sydney for treatment, which is amid a strict lockdown. It has also meant she has had to leave her three children and husband behind in WA.

Joshua said Tebentafusp worked by helping immune cells get close enough to cancer cells to attack them.

“It’s like velcro between the tumour and the immune system, such that the immune system is activated to attack the tumour,” he said.

St Vincent’s Hospital is the only site delivering the treatment in NSW.

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