Australian Melanoma Genome Project a new front in cancer fight

24 August 2012

University of Sydney researchers are part of the Australian Melanoma Genome Project, an ambitious two-year national research program that aims to identify the common gene mutations that lead to melanoma.

Jillian Skinner, the NSW Minister for Health and Minister for Medical Research launched the project today. It aims to identify new targets for effective treatments based on the genetic characteristics of individual melanomas.

Sydney Medical School's Professor John Thompson, the Executive Director of Melanoma Institute Australia, said, "We would be surprised if this work does not translate into a major extension of life for thousands of people worldwide with melanoma.

"The Melanoma Genome Project will build on Australia's international leadership in this area and move the world's medical knowledge closer to being able to prevent and cure melanoma. It will lead to better diagnostic tests and new drugs which can specifically target the mutations that are causing this particular cancer."

A national coalition of researchers from the University of Sydney, Westmead Millennium Institute, Melanoma Institute Australia, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and NSW Health Pathology, and Queensland Institute of Medical Research will work together to identify all the common gene mutations that cause deadly melanoma.

The first stage of the project will identify as many mutations as possible in a library of 500 melanoma tumour samples collected over the last 20 years. The second stage will determine how common each of the mutations found in the first phase is and when they play their part in the growth and spread of melanoma.

Melanomas behave as they do because the genes in their cells have become damaged. There are more than 25,000 human genes and many of them play a role in cancer if they are damaged. Different people's melanomas have different patterns of gene mutation. This explains why a melanoma that looks just the same as another to a surgeon or a pathologist might in fact be much more dangerous, and need more aggressive treatment.

Researchers need to be able to test for all the mutations that predict good and bad tumour behavior. Identifying all the mutations that drive melanoma will provide a foundation of diagnostic tests to help optimise medical care for individual patients. It will also expedite the development of the next generation of melanoma diagnostic tests and treatments.

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