Australian researchers are set to begin a multimillion dollar project to try to unlock the genetic secrets of melanoma. The incidence of the potentially fatal form of skin cancer has increased across the globe in recent years. But it is more common in Australia than anywhere else. Each year there are 100,000 new cases and 1,200 deaths.
Researchers at the Melanoma Institute of Australia are looking for a cure for the deadly form of cancer by finding its genetic weak spot. The objective is to identify the most dangerous genetic mutations and determine which patients are most at risk of aggressive forms of the disease.
The Institute’s co-director of research, Graham Mann, says researchers plan to map the DNA profile of tens of thousands of tissue specimens.
“We and others have just decided that we have to end this phase of research as quickly as possible. We have to know what are all the mutations that are driving melanoma so we can get on with the job of sifting out the ones that can be targeted, the ones that are important prognostically. We cannot afford to let this drag on for five or 10 or 15 years just dithering around," Mann said. "The technology is there now for us to do this that is basically genome sequencing technology - same as for the human genome project.”
Genetic research over the past forty years has helped develop a new generation of drugs that are still in the clinical testing phase.
Dr. Georgina Long, an oncologist at the Melanoma Institute in Sydney, is optimistic that these treatments, which target genetic mutations, will be able to slow down the spread of skin cancer.
“One that we are particularly interested in or [a] class of drugs we’ve been working on are something called BRAF inhibitors, which is a mutation in the melanoma not in the person but in their melanoma," she explained. "And at looking how drugs that target that mutation can stop the melanoma from growing and can prolong patients’ survival.”
At the moment melanoma cells are highly unpredictable. Without surgery, they can grow and divide very quickly.
Melanoma affects more young Australians than any other form of cancer.
Public health media campaigns present powerful messages about the dangers of over exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, the main cause of this type of skin cancer. But more cases are appearing each year.
Melanoma is increasing around the world, including Europe, the Middle East and China. The majority of cases are treated successfully with surgery. But those patients with more advanced and aggressive melanoma should benefit most from Australia’s genetic research.