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.
In a trial involving 105 people with melanoma and 104 healthy controls, the blood test was able to detect early stage melanoma in 79 per cent of cases.
Australia has the second highest rate of melanoma in the world, with 14,000 new diagnoses and almost 2000 deaths each year.
Lead researcher PhD candidate Pauline Zaenker said identifying melanoma early was the best way to preventing 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."
Currently the main way melanoma is detected is by a visual scan by a clinician with any areas of skin that are of concern excised and sent for a biopsy.
Ms Zaenker, from ECU's Melanoma Research Group (MRG), 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."
Antibodies provide early warning
The blood test works by detecting the autoantibodies the body produces 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."
MelanomaWA Chief Executive Officer Clinton Heal knows first-hand the importance of developing new ways to detect skin cancer – he has had 34 secondary tumours removed since he was diagnosed with melanoma at the age of 22.
"At MelanomaWA we see first-hand the importance of early detection and how it's critical to the long term survival of people diagnosed with melanoma," he said.
"I am personally so excited to see this research transcending into clinical practice, having given of my own blood samples to the Melanoma Research Group following my diagnosis in 2005.
"My primary melanoma was not detected early, and I believe a simple blood test could have drastically improved my melanoma diagnosis and subsequent treatment since."
MRG 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 screening 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 today (Wednesday 18 July) in the journal Oncotarget.
The Melanoma Research Group's main focus is on developing blood tests that can detect and monitor the progress of melanoma in patients.
Some of their projects include:
A blood test for melanoma of the eye
In 2016, the MRG received a $200,000 grant from the Cancer Council WA and $820,000 from the NHMRC to develop a blood test for early prediction of the effectiveness of different types of treatments for melanoma patients.