Tuesday, 08 June 2010
Working in medical research is sometimes like solving a puzzle without having all of the pieces – at least that's how Mel Ziman describes her work on melanoma.
"There’s always a new problem to be figured out and then solved – the challenge is one of the things I love most about the job," she says.
Ziman is currently working with a team at Edith Cowan University to develop a blood test that can quickly and easily detect melanoma.
Australia has the highest skin cancer rate in the world and each year almost 10,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma – the most deadly form of skin cancer.
Even after the tumour has been cut out, melanoma cells can still spread throughout the body and grow in other sites. The test Ziman and her team are developing will pick up migrating melanoma cells earlier than current methods, so that treatment can be given more quickly – hopefully helping to save lives.
Mel Ziman moved to Australia 16 years ago after growing up in an equally sunny spot – Cape Town. She originally studied chemistry, but boycotted the usual jobs in industry in favour of medical research.
Despite her passion for her job, Ziman never planned to work with cancer – her original interest was the role of genes in the development of the embryo. But it turns out that some of the same genes that make a developing cell become a skin cell also play a role in melanoma.
"One day we thought: what if the genes that cause skin cells to proliferate and migrate during development are expressed by migrating melanoma cells? Then we would be able to more easily test for them," says Ziman. After much research, Ziman and her team found out that their prediction was correct, and it is these genes that their test looks for. The only downside of working on an incomplete puzzle such as melanoma is that it can take up a lot of time – Ziman worka most nights after spending quality time with her family. "If you want to do things properly, the work is always very slow."
But this is counter-balanced by the knowledge she is helping people – Ziman gets to travel to different places, such as building sites, and help people to reduce their risk of skin cancer. "Melanoma is so preventable compared to other cancers and being able to talk to people about how to avoid the disease is great." – Fiona MacDonald