December 20, 2013  Print

As large parts of Australia brace themselves for a Christmas heatwave, medical scientists are warning some people have a much higher than average chance of developing a deadly melanoma skin cancer as a result of sun exposure, genes or both.

With an estimated 12,000 people diagnosed with melanoma in 2012, cutting edge genetic research is giving hope to those who develop the disease or have a high genetic risk of developing it.

Thanks to a $5 million dollar grant from the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF), the Westmead Millennium Institute (WMI) in Sydney will soon open its new state-of-the-art melanoma research laboratories.

The laboratories will be used to study the genetics and genomics of melanomas and will help researchers to better understand all the different mutations that exist in melanoma.

The leader of the melanoma research group at the WMI, Professor Graham Mann said genetic research is “changing the whole landscape of melanoma.”

“Thanks to the generosity of ACRF and its supporters, the new melanoma laboratories at WMI will further strengthen research into this most deadly form of skin cancer.”

Professor Mann said the research is resulting in clinical trials of new drugs that target particular mutations.

“We are coming to grips with the genes that drive melanoma behaviour and the difference between the melanomas that are aggressive and dangerous, and those which are easier to treat.

“Some key chinks have been found in melanoma’s armour and clinical trials have started delivering the first effective drugs against it by targeting those weak points.”

“For the first time, we are able to effectively treat people with advanced melanoma and extend their survival,” he said.

“This is a huge new area - possibly the beginning of the end for melanoma - but without facilities and funding partners such as ACRF none of this would be possible.”

The Australian Cancer Research Foundation is one of the largest private funders of high-impact cancer research in the country.

“We only fund world-leaders in cancer research,” said Chairman of the ACRF, Mr Tom Dery.
“The research being undertaken at WMI is breaking new ground in this most important, very Australian, type of cancer.”

A key focus for the team at the WMI is to understand why new melanoma treatments stop working.

“What we have learnt is that melanoma is a highly diverse disease with many mutations. No one treatment will work for every patient,” Professor Mann said.

“How melanoma tumours overcome their sensitivity to new drug treatments and how we can block that process is clearly the direction of the whole melanoma research field now.

“At the WMI and in our program more broadly we are right at the tip of that research.

“We are trying to leverage everything we know about melanoma’s biology and the genomics of melanoma and turn that into large-scale new treatments."

The ACRF-funded melanoma laboratories will commence operations next year when the WMI completes its new medical research facilities located at the Westmead campus.

The new melanoma laboratories will support a collaborative program of international melanoma researchers, including teams across the University of Sydney, the Melanoma Institute Australia, Macquarie University, University of Newcastle and Kolling Institute.