Developing a simple test to ensure advanced melanoma patients get the right drug for their disease

Dr James Wilmott

The Melanoma Institute AustraliaCancer Council NSW Funding: $425,095Funding duration: 2019–2021


Melanoma of the skin is the fourth most common cancer in Australia, with over 15,000 people expected to be diagnosed with the disease in 2019. Unlike other cancers of the skin, melanoma can spread throughout the body if not treated early. Termed ‘metastatic melanoma’ this advanced form of the disease kills one Australian every 5 hours.

Once melanoma has spread, the most effective treatment is immunotherapy. These immunotherapies release the brakes on the immune system to attack tumour cells. However, more than 40% of metastatic melanoma patients are not cured with these therapies, more for the other cancers. Therefore doctors need to be able to identify who is or isn’t likely to have benefit from the treatment. This means precious time is lost before alternative treatments are offered to those patients for whom immunotherapy won’t be effective.

The research

Dr Wilmott is part of a team of researchers focused on finding treatments for the more than 40% of patients that are not cured with our best current therapies. In another study funded by Cancer Council NSW early career fellowship, the team of oncologists, pathologists, scientists and statisticians identified a set of immune related genes that are critical for a melanoma patient’s response to immunotherapies. The team have initially used these genes to successfully predict the effectiveness of immunotherapy in 105 patients with advanced melanoma.

In this project, the team aim to translate this information from the laboratory into the clinics of their oncology team, giving them the opportunity to test their methods in over 400 patients. They hope to verify their test can accurately identify patients who will respond to standard immunotherapies and the patients for who should be offered alternative treatment options.

The impact

This study could lead to the introduction of a simple test in the earliest stages of treatment planning for patients who are diagnosed with advanced melanoma. This would provide critical information for decision-making and ensure patients are offered the treatments most likely to be effective against their cancer.

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