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Though a young organisation, Melanoma Institute Australia has a long history, having evolved from the Sydney Melanoma Clinic set up at Sydney Hospital by the late Professor Gerald Milton in the 1960s.

Early years – the melanoma clinic at Sydney Hospital

In 1957 the association of sunlight with melanoma was highlighted by a landmark paper in the Medical Journal of Australia by Doctors Lancaster and Nelson however it was some years before the rapidly increasing incidence of melanoma became documented. Once it was, it quickly became obvious that this had specific implications for Australia because the incidence was clearly higher here than anywhere else in the world.

In 1966 Professor Gerald Milton set up Australia’s first specialist melanoma clinic at Sydney Hospital. As patient referrals to the clinic increased, it became necessary to offer chemotherapy and provide palliative care. As a result the first domiciliary nursing service for advanced melanoma patients receiving treatment with chemotherapy, immunotherapy or radiotherapy was established.

Professor William McCarthy, a surgeon who had been trained in the United States, joined the clinic in 1968. He instigated community education programs, particularly in the fields of prevention and early diagnosis, and organised fundraising activities to support the clinic's research and educational activities.

From early on, Professor Gerald Milton began collecting data about melanoma from patients using a written proforma designed by himself and Dr Cecil Lewis, a Professor of Surgery in Perth, Western Australia. In 1972, the Clinic joined the WHO Melanoma Group and began to take part in international clinical trials. As patient numbers increased exponentially, computerisation became necessary to handle the vast amount of data that was accumulating. This database, which is now housed at Melanoma Institute Australia, is currently the world's largest. To date there are more than 32,000 patient records in the database, which remains a vital research tool for the Institute, while also providing in-depth information on each patient’s treatment.

Sydney Melanoma Unit at RPA Hospital

The Clinic became the Sydney Melanoma Unit (SMU) following a move to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1983, where it became part of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sydney. The move to a larger hospital enabled services to be expanded. Professor Milton set up the first domiciliary service for patients, and this has become a model for other multidisciplinary cancer services. Professor William McCarthy succeeded Professor Milton as director of the SMU in 1989. During this time, Professor McCarthy established the Melanoma Foundation within the University of Sydney, which soon began to generate funds that enabled the Unit to progress much more rapidly with its research and education programs. Both Professor Milton and Professor McCarthy have been recognised for their work in melanoma surgery and medical education by awards in the Order of Australia.

Professor John Thompson joined the Sydney Melanoma Unit soon after its relocation to RPA. Trained in vascular surgery, transplantation, and surgical oncology, he brought a wide range of important new skills for the development of the clinical and research programs. In 1999 he succeeded Professor McCarthy as director of the Unit and greatly expanded its clinical and biological research program. During this time Professor Thompson developed the nation's first isolated limb perfusion service. Professor Thompson was also director of the Melanoma Foundation until 2009.

Throughout its history, the Sydney Melanoma Unit facilitated research by eminent melanoma clinicians and researchers. Dr Vincent McGovern, an internationally recognised authority on the histopathology of melanoma, had a close association with the Unit until his tragic death in 1983. After this time, Professor Stan McCarthy progressively developed the Unit's reputation for internationally pre-eminent melanocytic histopathology, and was made an officer of the Order of Australia in 1996 for his efforts.  Medical oncology was developed by Professor Alan Coates, and immunotherapy by Professor Peter Hersey. Dr Helen Shaw provided essential input, particularly in the area of the Melanoma Research Database, until her death in 2009.

Melanoma Institute Australia

In 2005, philanthropist Greg Poche provided an unprecedented $40 million gift to the Sydney Melanoma Unit to fund the construction of a purpose-built melanoma facility in North Sydney near the Mater Hospital. As a result of this gift, the Sydney Melanoma Unit became Melanoma Institute Australia. It Institute was incorporated as a company in 2007.

The change in name reflected the Unit’s vision to move towards becoming a national presence, which was facilitated by Greg Poche’s extraordinary generosity. The Poche Centre, the largest single tumour cancer centre in Australia, officially opened on March 24 2010, bringing with it a new era for melanoma research and treatment in Australia.

Over coming years, Melanoma Institute Australia aims to position itself at the forefront of melanoma research and treatment not just in Sydney but in Australia and beyond, while educating the next generation of clinicians and researchers. With its multidisciplinary approach to research and care, the Institute has the ultimate aim of finding a cure for melanoma.


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