Melanoma therapy trials for could prevent disease spreading, researchers say

Melanoma therapy trials for could prevent disease spreading, researchers say

Melanoma therapy trials for could prevent disease spreading, researchers say

Updated 12 September 2017, 0:30 AEST

Drugs that are currently used for people at the advanced stage of melanoma could help prevent the disease from returning and spreading at an earlier stage, new research shows.

New research has found that therapies currently used for people at the advanced stage of melanoma could help prevent the disease from returning and spreading at an earlier stage.

One Australian dies every five hours from advanced melanoma, but the new research published tomorrow in the New England Journal of Medicine could soon reduce that number.

Melanoma Institute Australia (MIA), which conducted the clinical trials, said the findings could change the way the cancer is treated in the future.

Two international trials gave patients a combination of targeted drugs for 12 months, in an attempt to block the BRAF gene — which causes melanoma to spread.

Research from the first clinical trial — called COMBI-AD — found the therapy prevented Stage III melanoma from recurring, and helped improve patients' overall survival rate.

Professor Richard Scolyer, MIA's medical director, said the drugs reduced the rate at which the disease would return by 53 per cent.

"Previously these patients would just play the waiting game to see if their melanoma had spread elsewhere and would recur down the track," he said.

"These two trials have shown that these two different types of therapy can basically stop melanoma in its tracks, prevent it from spreading to become this potentially lethal advanced stage four melanoma."

Professor Scolyer said the second trial, known as CheckMate, also reduced the rate the disease would return by about 35 per cent.

The second trial involved other end-stage melanoma drugs that worked to help boost the body's own immune system to fight the cancer.

But he said it was too soon to tell if those drugs improved overall survival rates.

"They only work locally, but don't prevent the disease if it's already spread elsewhere," he said.

"So the patients who get stage four disease, there must be little seeded deposits of little cells that we can't detect now and these therapies mop up those cells so patients don't get clinically apparent stage four disease."

'I have hope about the rest of my life'

In 2013 Sydney history teacher Renae Aslanis had a lump in her groin diagnosed as melanoma, which had spread from a mole on her back.

She had 10 lymph nodes removed. But the unpredictable nature of the disease made it hard for her to know what to do next.

"When I asked questions such as, will I have a pulse in five years time, two years time, six months time? And the response was 'I don't know' — it was devastating," she said.

"I didn't know whether I needed to organise for a funeral, or decide no I'm going to party on and really take life in my hands and move on."

Ms Aslanis discovered she was eligible for the clinical trial COMBI-AD because she was at high risk of the cancer developing into advanced and fatal melanoma, and tested positive for the BRAF gene.

"[There] hasn't been great results with [radiation therapy], so I thought what have I got to lose?" she said.

"This could give me help, this could offer me something that hasn't been offered before, and that was actually what clinched it for me."

Ms Aslanis does not know for sure whether she was given the therapy or the placebo, but she is confident she benefited from the trial because three years on no cancer has been detected.

"Which is quite remarkable because at that stage, for a Stage III patient there is a 70 per cent chance that there will be a recurrence in the first few years," she said.

"And I am one of the lucky ones that that hasn't happened to. So these drugs are remarkable in their scope."

Ms Aslanis said the trial was a gift that had given her hope for the future.

She urged others to slip slop slap to prevent contracting melanoma in the first place.

"The longer I have been involved in the trial post the medication phase, the more faith and hope that I have that my life expectancy has again gone up," she said.

"I am quite hopeful about the rest of my life."