Mitchell Stark from QIMR Berghofer’s Oncogenomics group said the new biomarkers could be ideally suited for monitoring tumour progression in patients diagnosed with early metastatic disease.
“This panel of markers could be useful in tracking melanoma progression or recurrence in patients being monitored by their treating clinician,” he said.
“They are highly sensitive and specific, and are significantly better than markers currently being used.”
Mr Stark said better monitoring may improve a patient’s chance of survival by detecting melanoma progression before metastatic disease is clinically evident, and allowing treatment to start sooner.
“Survival rates for patients with metastatic melanoma differ greatly depending on the extent of spread,” he said.
“Patients with stage III melanoma, with spread confined to regional lymph nodes, have a five-year survival rate of about 50%, compared to less than 15% if metastases are widespread.”
The blood test would look for elevated levels of the markers, or microRNAs, tiny molecules which regulate the amount of protein a gene can produce.
The study compared samples from 255 melanoma patients from the Melanoma Institute of Australia and Germany’s University of Tubingen to 102 participants with no evidence of melanoma at time of collection.
“In specimens from stage IV patients, the new biomarkers confirmed tumour progression in 100% of cases,” Mr Stark said.
A PhD student at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Mr Stark has been working on the project at QIMR Berghofer since 2011 and is now validating the research in an independent cohort of melanoma patients.
His work has been supported by the NHMRC, QUT, and the Queensland Government’s Smart Futures Fund.
Queensland Science Minister Leeanne Enoch said the research represents a significant advance for melanoma patients.
“The ability to identify signs of melanoma progression sooner will be a valuable clinical tool,” Ms Enoch said.
“Testing for these new markers in regular blood tests will also help to determine whether stressful and expensive CT scanning is necessary at each follow-up.
“This is an excellent example of the world-leading research at QIMR Berghofer which has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of patients in Queensland and around the world.”
The research has been published in EBioMedicine: