Professor Helen Rizos. Image courtesy of Carolyn Seri for Melanoma Institute Australia Report.
Professor Helen Rizos. Image courtesy of Carolyn Seri for Melanoma Institute Australia Report.

Expanding treatments for the ‘Australian’ cancer

The chances of surviving melanoma are getting better every year. But some cancers still become ‘resistant’ to treatment, and others don’t respond at all.

A collection of over 10,000 blood and 4,900 tissue samples from the biobank at the Melanoma Institute Australia is being used to hunt for clues to predict which patients won’t be responsive to treatment from day one. The researchers, from Macquarie University, are also looking for the basis of developed resistance by the cancer.

More than 12,000 cases of melanoma are diagnosed in Australia annually, making it the third most common cancer.

“Melanoma used to be the ‘orphan’ of cancer research – prior to 2000 there were no therapies available that could increase patients’ survival,” says Professor Helen Rizos of the Precision Cancer Therapy Research Group, who is leading the research.

Advances in technologies have led to more treatment options, including immunotherapies that encourage the immune system to detect and fight the cancer, which up to 60 per cent of patients respond to. For 20-25 per cent of these patients, the response is ‘long-lived’, meaning a few doses of immunotherapy increase their survival by three to 10 years.

Those with a particular cancer mutation in the BRAF gene (almost half of all Australian melanoma cases) can also receive two drugs targeting BRAF activity, which their cancer depends on for survival.

While more than eight out of 10 patients respond to this double-whammy treatment, many cancers will then find another way to survive – which Helen and her team hope to prevent.

This story was originally published Stories of Australian Science and is republished here with permission.