February 4, 2020  Print

In recognition of this year’s World Cancer Day theme, ‘I Am and I Will’, we spoke to Professor Pablo Fernandez-Penas about how researchers at The Westmead Institute for Medical Research (WIMR) are committed to a world with zero deaths from melanoma.

Tell us a bit about your work.
I am the co-lead of the Australian Cancer Research Foundation Melanoma Laboratories at WIMR. The lab focuses on improving the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of skin cancer.
Pablo-Fernandez-Penas_Social2-(1).jpgWhile I’m relatively new to the position, I have been working on skin cancer throughout my entire professional life, both as a researcher and a clinician. As a dermatologist, I’m well aware of the impact that cancers such as melanoma can have on patients and their families.

Through working on clinical and translational research projects, I hope to prevent skin cancers from occurring, and ensure that those who are affected by skin cancer have the best possible treatment and outcomes.
How is research at WIMR making a difference to people with melanoma?
Our research is focused across the prevention and diagnosis of melanoma, as well as how melanoma develops and progresses.

Currently, melanoma is confirmed via a biopsy. We’re investigating the use of non-invasive technologies to analyse proteins on the surface of the skin that can be used to diagnose melanoma. This may eliminate the need for a biopsy, as well as lead to earlier diagnoses and, therefore, better outcomes for patients.

We are also investigating the differences in patient responses to treatment to understand why some patients respond quite well to standard treatment, while others do not. In doing so, we hope that patients will be offered the most effective treatment possible.

The team are also working to understand the mechanisms behind a rare melanoma called ‘mucosal melanoma’. This is a cancer that appears on areas of the skin that are not commonly exposed to the sun, such as on the oral mucosa (the mucus membrane lining of the mouth), and on genitalia.

Another exciting project that our unit is coordinating in NSW will see a network of 3D photography systems deployed in Australia. The aim is to facilitate the development of Artificial Intelligence, to help with the clinical diagnosis of melanoma. This system will mean that the whole body is photographed in 3D, providing new opportunities for researchers and clinicians.

What are you hoping to achieve through your research?
Melanoma is the third most common cancer among Australians. While advances in research have made a real difference, we need to do more to prevent cancer-related deaths, and reduce the overall rate of melanoma.

All of our research exists with a common goal – zero deaths from melanoma. This is something we share with our collaborator, the Melanoma Institute of Australia.
As a researcher and clinician, I’m glad I have the opportunity to have an impact on people’s health, and work towards this meaningful goal.