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Melanoma – the key to a cure is in the genes

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Slip, slop slap, seek and slide is a sun-safe message familiar to most adults.

But figures show that, despite the warnings and precautions taken while in the sun, around one in 20 Australians will develop melanoma in their lifetime.

Malignant melanoma represents only 2 per cent of all skin cancers in Australia, but it is responsible for almost 80 per cent of skin cancer-related deaths.

Melanoma can rapidly spread via the blood from a primary tumour in the skin to form aggressive secondary tumours throughout the body. The average survival time is less than nine months, and less than 10 per cent of patients survive for five years.

Unfortunately, as Professor Richard Scolyer, Co-Director of Research Melanoma Institute of Australia said, “treatment for melanoma is not a one-size-fits-all solution”.

Professor Scolyer and colleagues are involved in a large-scale research initiative analysing tissue from 500 patients with melanoma to identify common gene mutations that cause the cancer. The researchers are hoping the sequencing will lead to more personalised treatment for patients.

Professor Scolyer said the genome sequencing will provide insights into the evolution and progression of melanoma, as well as answers as to why some melanomas spread, or metastasise.

“While advances in treatment have cut mortality rates in many other cancers, melanoma remains resistant to drug therapy, and the prospects for patients with advanced tumours are poor,” Professor Scolyer said. “Advanced stage metastatic melanoma is associated with very high mortality and, until very recently, there were no effective systemic therapies.”

“The genome sequencing will eventually enable clinicians to select treatments based on an individual patient’s specific genomic tumour profile – treatment known as personalised medicine.”

Currently more than 200 melanoma tumour-control pairs have been tissue- and DNA quality control-tested, and tumours from more than 100 patients have been sequenced.

Professor Scolyer said the pattern of gene mutation of melanomas varied between people, which is why one melanoma that looks the same as another to a surgeon or pathologist might be more dangerous, and need more aggressive treatment.

“The new genome data being sequenced will provide the potential for registered researchers around the world to use this information for specific research projects and develop a whole new set of new diagnostic, prognostic and therapeutic outcomes,” Professor Scolyer said.

The project is supported by the Australian and New South Wales governments, Melanoma Institute Australia, Bioplatforms Australia on behalf of the Commonwealth Government and the Cancer Council NSW.

Kirsty Waterford

Image by Rachel Collins on Flickr, used under Creative Commons licence

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