Link Between Protein Molecule and Melanoma Outcomes

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South Australian researchers are working to improve outcomes for skin cancer patients after discovering that a particular protein could determine the fate of people with the disease.

A team from the Center for Cancer Biology at the University of South Australia has identified the protein desmoglein-2 (DSG-2) and found that melanoma patients who express it are two and a half times more likely to die within 10 years.

Initial lab work discovered how to block the protein using nanotechnology, with research efforts now looking for ways to better isolate patients most at risk.

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“By injecting a cancer cell research molecule intravenously, we can find melanoma cells with high levels of DSG-2 and attack them, thereby reducing their severity,” said lead researcher Claudine Bonder.

“We already know that in people with lower levels of this protein, melanoma doesn’t grow as quickly, and we have a better chance of stopping it.”

Professor Bonder’s team hope the financial support from the community will help them continue their research into new treatments for melanoma and improved methods of detecting the aggressive protein.

“We are confident that we can identify the subset of patients who have elevated DSG-2 expressions on their cancer cells,” she said.

“We are also confident that we can block this protein on melanoma, giving patients a better outcome.”

Despite years of skin cancer warnings, Australia continues to have the world’s highest rates of melanoma, a disease that is almost universally fatal if it spreads to other organs.

More than 16,000 Australians will be diagnosed with melanoma this year and although 95% of cases are caused by unprotected sun exposure, other risk factors exist.

A family history can increase the risk, as can fair skin, a weakened immune system, and numerous or unusual moles.

“Melanoma doesn’t just show up on sun-exposed skin,” Professor Bonder said.

“Melanoma can appear in the eyes, nose, mouth and genitals. What we know is that once it spreads beyond the skin into vital organs such as our lungs , our liver or our brain, it is almost always fatal.”

For SA resident Ian Dempster, a diagnosis of melanoma in 2014 led to years of surgery, drug infusions and radiation therapy.

The disease was already well advanced when the 78-year-old was diagnosed after a biopsy on a patch on his left cheek was found to be malignant.

“I was initially misdiagnosed, but went back to the doctor after six months because I was really worried the place would change shape,” he said.

“Within a week of the biopsy, I underwent the first of many surgeries.”

Over two years, Ian received 35 intravenous infusions of the melanoma drug Keytruda and lost part of his left cheek, which was replaced with a skin graft from his wrist.

Now in remission, Mr Dempster urged others not to make the same mistakes he did.

“Wear a hat, wear sunscreen, cover up as best you can, and just be aware of any suspicious moles or skin lesions and have them checked out immediately,” he said.

“Melanoma is so prevalent in this country and anything we can do to support research to find better treatments and even a cure is vital.”

To donate to the work of the university, go to giving.unisa.edu.au/melanoma-research

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