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New blood test for melanoma

New blood test for melanoma

Early stage melanoma may soon be identified by a simple and inexpensive blood test, a gathering of experts in the research and treatment of melanoma being held in Queenstown heard today.

Professor Mel Ziman is Associate Dean of Research in the School of Medical and Health Sciences at Perth’s Edith Cowan University and leads a group developing blood-based markers for early melanoma diagnosis and treatment monitoring, which she says is key to improving survival rates.

Melanoma is an aggressive cancer. Once it has spread through the body, average survival is six to nine months, with less than 40 percent of patients surviving five years.

New Zealand and Australia have the highest incidence of melanoma in the world. More than 2400 New Zealanders a year are diagnosed with melanoma and around 350 New Zealanders die from it every year.

“At the moment, suspicious lesions are biopsied and examined by a pathologist. In some cases diagnosis is difficult and not always certain, particularly with very early melanomas and those without colour,” says Professor Ziman.

“We’ve identified several auto antibodies that are produced by the body in response to melanoma and have developed a one-step blood test that will search for any one of these identifiers, which provides rapid, diagnostic certainty.”

She says it’s hoped the blood test will be routinely available within five years.

Professor Ziman’s team is also researching the cells that are shed by a melanoma tumour into the bloodstream.

“These are very difficult to identify because there will be only one tumour cell in about a million white blood cells. New technology has allowed us to develop a way to separate out these rare cells without damaging them, so that we can investigate them in more detail.

“If we can understand these tumour cells better, we can stop them shedding from the tumour into the bloodstream and design drugs to precisely target them.”
The team is also looking at the DNA from what are known as circulating tumour cells. “All tumours are formed as a result of mutations in DNA. As the tumour grows, the cells break open and release this DNA into the bloodstream, seeding new tumours.

“We’ve made tremendous strides in identifying this tumour DNA in patients undergoing therapy. It allows us to tell very early whether the therapy is working, or whether patients aren’t responding and should be switched to another treatment.

“We can also see when other mutant parts of DNA arrive that make the patient resistant to treatment.”

The team is also monitoring the DNA of patients who finish treatment to see if they remain disease-free. “We’ve been able to show in two or three cases that the patients weren’t quite disease free.”

Professor Ziman says this three-pronged approach to improving early diagnosis and treatment of melanoma will save lives and money because late stage melanoma is very difficult and very expensive to treat.

Melanoma research and therapy in New Zealand: raising the bar through collaborative action is a gathering of leading New Zealand and international melanoma clinicians, scientists and researchers in Queenstown on Saturday 9 September. It has been organised by MelNet, Melanoma New Zealand and Queenstown Research Week.
The meeting aims to share melanoma knowledge, identify priorities for action, inspire collaboration and have a clear pathway for patient-focussed research projects and clinical trials in New Zealand.

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