Aussie scientists make melanoma treatment breakthrough

man having moles inspected by doctor

Australian scientists have made a breakthrough discovery in the treatment of melanoma and may be able to stop the cancer in its early stages.

Melanoma, a common type of skin cancer, has been referred to in the past as the ‘national cancer‘ of Australia. Our sun-soaked outdoorsy lifestyle has led to us having the highest rates of melanoma in the world.

It’s the third-most commonly diagnosed cancer in both men and women in Australia and was responsible for more than 1700 deaths last year.

In the past, melanoma patients have not responded well to immunotherapies – treatments that activate or suppress the immune system. Immunotherapies are used to treat a wide variety of other cancers but had never been effective in treating skin cancer.

Read: Lowering cholesterol can stop cancer spread: researchers

In the past decade, immunotherapy drugs have been approved for use in Australia for stage III and IV melanoma patients and these therapies have dramatically increased survival rates. There are still no immunotherapy drugs approved for early stage melanoma treatment.

But clinical trials conducted by researchers from the Melanoma Institute Australia (MIA) might be about to change all that.

Researchers demonstrated that giving pembrolizumab, sold under the brand name Keytruda, after surgery to patients with stage IIB or IIC melanoma reduced the risk of the disease returning, or death, by 35 per cent compared to the placebo.

After 12 months, melanoma progressed in only 9.5 per cent of patients on pembrolizumab compared to 16.9 per cent in the placebo group.

“We are using drug therapy already proven to be life-saving for advanced melanoma patients, to stop the disease in its tracks in earlier stage patients,” says Professor Georgia Long, MIA medical director and author of the study.

“These exciting clinical trial results are strong evidence to support approval for this immunotherapy to become standard treatment for high-risk stage II patients in Australia.”

Read: Unexpected places you can get skin cancer

In another Aussie breakthrough, researchers at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane may have found one reason why that is and potentially how to counter it.

In a study published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research, QIMR Berghofer researchers showed that the presence of high levels of the protein CD155 in melanoma cells is making it harder for immunotherapies to take hold. CD155 proteins attach themselves to cancer cells and effectively hide the melanoma cells, making immunotherapy difficult.

“The tumour appears to be using the CD155 molecule to escape being hunted down by immune cells, called T-cells, and to also resist being killed off by immunotherapy,” says Professor Mark Smyth, lead researcher of the study.

“Reducing tumour CD155 in people with metastatic melanoma may be a way to improve the effectiveness of immunotherapy for them and save the lives of many more people.”

The research team hopes to use the data to develop new therapies for melanoma, as well as find out if CD155 affects the treatment of other types of cancer.

Read: Early detection tools the key in battle with killer cancer

“Currently there are no therapeutics used for melanoma that target CD155, so we hope to explore that pathway,” co-author of the study Dr. Elizabeth Ahern says.  

“We now want to focus on designing new immunotherapies that target the CD155 proteins to get them off the tumour.”

Have you had your skin checked for melanoma recently? Have you ever found a mystery spot on your skin that turned out to be cancerous? Why not share your story in the comments section below?

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Written by Brad Lockyer

Brad has deep knowledge of retirement income, including Age Pension and other government entitlements, as well as health, money and lifestyle issues facing older Australians. Keen interests in current affairs, politics, sport and entertainment. Digital media professional with more than 10 years experience in the industry.

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