Professor Mark Smyth: the Brisbane scientist pioneering cancer treatment

The world has Mark Smyth’s interest in golf to thank for his ground-breaking research that proved the immune system can react with cancer and can be manipulated to fight the disease.  

Mark Smyth

The immunology, cancer and infection Professor at QIMR Berghofer was originally on track to become a medical doctor, but after  being distracted playing golf instead of studying he didn’t get the marks he needed for medical school so he embarked on a career in science. 

And thank goodness he did, because Professor Smyth’s early work studying the immune system’s reaction to cancer, which he did two decades ago, has led to the relatively new and very sophisticated immunotherapy treatments being used today to treat and eliminate cancer.

“The work that I did with a very long-standing colleague called Robert Schreiber in the US in the early 2000s has set the foundation to understanding that the immune reaction to cancer is a very real thing,” he said.

Based on Professor Smyth’s research, other scientists have developed successful immune therapies that have contributed to a greatly improved survival rate for a range of different cancers.

“What we learnt, that was critical from the early ‘90s until recently, is that the immune system regulates itself,” he said. This discovery has led to antibody therapies targeting certain molecules in the immune system called “immune checkpoints”.

“Thankfully for us in the immunotherapy area, they have become the absolute prototype to successful therapy.”

What does this mean for cancer sufferers? A greater rate of survival, or a longer life.  

“We have gone from people who have stage-four melanoma for example having no hope or a maximum of 12 months left to live, to using  antibody immunotherapy in treatment and now we know there is a 20-30 per cent survival rate and a longer and better quality of life for those who do eventually succumb to the disease,” he said. 

Professor Smyth said it had been the success of relatively new immune system therapies to treat cancer that had thrust his early work in immunotherapy into the spotlight.

“It is the immune checkpoint antibodies being developed now, that have been built on our early work, that are saving lives, and not just in melanoma, they are being used in 20 different cancers,” he said. 

In fact, immunotherapy is now known as the “fourth pillar” of cancer treatment after early detection and surgery; radiotherapy; and chemotherapy, and Professor Smyth is now looking at ways all pillars can work together to fight cancer.

“We think there are some fantastic possibilities to potentially combine these things, so you might be able to get rid of the bulk of the disease with one of those first three pillars and then immunotherapy can be used to clean up the minimal residual disease, “ he said.  

Building on his earlier work, Professor Smyth is now working to develop his own immunotherapies and has a number of specific projects in the initial development phase. Longer term, Professor Smyth wants to work on therapies for groups of patients who don’t respond to immunotherapies because they don’t have enough of the right cells in their tumours. These include people with pancreatic or prostate cancer. 

“Ultimately, we are now bringing new immunotherapies to cancer patients so hopefully we are going to prolong the survival of people with advanced cancers and we will soon see that immunotherapy will be used earlier and earlier in the treatment process,” he said. 

Professor Smyth moved from Melbourne to Brisbane to take up his position as senior scientist at QIMR Berghofer in 2013. He said Brisbane was the best place in the country to conduct the research he works on.

“Brisbane has great prospects because it is developing so quickly and there is a very good base of research here,” he said. “The facilities in Brisbane are absolutely first rate and there are a lot of beautiful buildings like the QIMR Berghofer and fantastic equipment.”

He said Brisbane was on track to become a “super hub for doing medical research”.