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The Melanoma

A world first

Edith Cowan University (ECU) researchers have developed the world's first blood test capable of detecting melanoma in its early stages, a breakthrough that will save thousands of lives, as well as millions of dollars for the health system.

Early detection the key to survival

Australia has the second-highest rate of melanoma in the world, with 14,000 new diagnoses and almost 2000 deaths each year.

Lead researcher Pauline Zaenker said identifying melanoma early was the best way to prevent these deaths.

"Patients who have their melanoma detected in its early stage have a five year survival rate between 90 and 99 per cent, whereas if it is not caught early and it spreads around the body, the five year survival rate drops to less than 50 per cent," she said.

"This is what makes this blood test so exciting as a potential screening tool, because it can pick up melanoma in its very early stages when it is still treatable."

Photo of ECUs Melanoma Research Group - Michelle Pereira, Pauline Zaenker and Professor Mel Ziman (Head of the Melanoma Research Group)
Michelle Pereira, Pauline Zaenker and Professor Mel Ziman (Head of the Melanoma Research Group).

Visual implications

Currently melanoma is most commonly detected via a visual scan by a clinician. Any suspicious areas of skin are excised and sent for a biopsy.

Ms Zaenker, from ECU's Melanoma Research Group, said the new blood test could provide doctors with a powerful new tool to detect melanoma before it spreads throughout the body.

"While clinicians do a fantastic job with the tools available, relying on biopsies alone can be problematic. We know that three out of four biopsies come back negative for melanoma," she said.

"The biopsies are quite invasive, with a minimum of 1cm by 1cm of skin excised from the patient."

"They are also costly, with previous research showing that the Australian health system spends $201 million on melanoma each year with an additional $73 million on negative biopsies."

Melanoma success

The Melanoma Research Group's main focus is on developing blood tests that can detect and monitor the progress of melanoma in patients.

Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of Melanoma in the world.
If a melanoma that's less than 1mm in thickness is removed, there's a 99% chance of survival.
Melanoma is the most common cancer in people aged 15-39.
Annual diagnoses (Australia): 14,000
Annual deaths: 1,700+

Antibodies provide early warning

The blood test works by detecting the autoantibodies produced by the body in response to the melanoma.

"The body starts producing these antibodies as soon as melanoma first develops which is how we have been able to detect the cancer in its very early stages with this blood test. No other type of biomarker appears to be capable of detecting the cancer in blood at these early stages." Ms Zaenker said.

"We examined a total of 1627 different types of antibodies to identify a combination of 10 antibodies that best indicated the presence of melanoma in confirmed patients relative to healthy volunteers."

Next steps

Melanoma Research Group Head Professor Mel Ziman said a follow-up clinical trial to validate the findings was being organised.

"We envision this taking about three years. If this is successful we would hope to be able to have a test ready for use in pathology clinics shortly afterwards," she said.

"The ultimate goal is for this blood test to be used to provide greater diagnostic certainty prior to biopsy and for routine monitoring of people who are at a higher risk of melanoma, such as those with a large number of moles or those with pale skin or a family history of the disease."

The blood test (MelDx) has been submitted for an international patent.

The development of the blood test was funded through a $452,000 grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and a $200,000 grant from Tour de Cure Australia will be used to progress this research.

The results from the study, 'A diagnostic autoantibody signature for primary cutaneous melanoma' was published in July 2018 in the journal Oncotarget.

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