Melanoma breakthrough: Scientists discover new way for early detection

Feb 10, 2020
Australia has one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world. Source: Getty.

Australian researchers may have found a new way to spot melanoma cells circulating in the blood, a breakthrough that could save thousands of lives.

Australia has one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world, and while anyone can be at risk of developing skin cancer, the risk increases as you get older. If left untreated, melanoma can spread to other parts of the body and may become incurable.

Edith Cowan University’s (ECU) Melanoma Research Group, in collaboration with Harvard Medical School and clinicians at Western Australian hospitals, has pioneered a new technique to detect circulating tumour cells (CTCs) that could provide a new avenue for cancer diagnosis and therapies, and potentially stop melanoma from spreading to other parts of the body. The latest research was published in the British Journal of Cancer.

“These preliminary findings are a first step towards a new way to stop melanoma from spreading around the body,” lead researcher Elin Gray said.

“Cancer spreads around the body when CTCs shed from the primary tumour and travel through the blood to form secondary tumours (metastases) in other organs.

“If we can find a way to reliably detect these cells, then we have a chance to stop melanoma in its tracks with a powerful diagnostic tool and perhaps opportunities for therapies in the future.”

Until now melanoma CTCs have been hard to find, with detection rates varying from 40 to 87 per cent.

“We now understand that CTC detection cannot be resolved with a one-size-fits-all approach,” Gray said. “There is a huge amount of variety in the shape and bioactivity of these CTCs and so they all look different and respond differently to assay tests.”

She continued: “To complicate things further, melanoma CTCs are hidden among thousands of other cells and matter in blood. Within one millilitre of blood, there are often fewer than 10 cancer cells among one billion red cells and one million white blood cells. It is much like finding a needle in a haystack.”

For the study, the researchers tried a multifaceted approach to detecting melanoma CTCs. Gray said by combining three assays (test systems) together, they raised detection rates to 72 per cent.

“We are confident this approach is a move towards the reliable detection of CTCs, but we now need to tweak the assay to include a better combination to capture the broadest range of CTCs.”

The latest research builds on previous work from the Melanoma Research Group, who developed the world’s first blood test capable of detecting melanoma in its early stages.

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