Breakthrough in the war on skin cancer:

Thousands of lives could be saved after scientists develop a simple blood test to detect most deadly form

  • New blood test for melanoma could save thousands of lives, doctors say
  • The form of skin cancer thought to kill 2,500 people in UK each year
  •  Oxford BioDynamics has developed test which examines moles on body

Scientists have developed a simple blood test to detect the most deadly form of skin cancer.

The test for melanoma, which would be conducted in GPs’ surgeries, could save thousands of lives.

At the moment patients have to rely on the judgment of doctors to decide whether or not a mole looks cancerous.

If they think it is suspect, the patient is sent for a biopsy, where a small chunk of the mole is removed and examined for cancerous cells under a microscope.

Scientists have developed a new test to detect the most deadly form of skin cancer - melanoma (file picture)

Scientists have developed a new test to detect the most deadly form of skin cancer – melanoma But doctors sometimes miss a melanoma, as it can be very difficult to distinguish a malignant mole from a benign one.

Now British company Oxford BioDynamics, a ‘spin-out’ from Oxford University, has come up with a way of testing if a patient has melanoma or not, by taking a small blood sample from their arm.

Melanoma kills 2,500 people in Britain every year. Many people are diagnosed too late, when cancer has already spread to other organs.

It kills three times more people than all other forms of skin cancer put together.

These are cells called melanocytes, which create the skin pigment melanin. Some of them end up floating freely in blood, which are picked up in the 20ml test sample.

The shape of their DNA is then analysed to look for patterns indicating melanoma, called ‘epigenetic signatures’.

The firm’s chief scientific officer Dr Alexandre Akoulitchev explained: ‘In the case of melanoma, there is a constant spread of invasive melanocytes from the primary cancer site. This test picks up traces of abnormality in the peripheral blood.’

Melanoma, pictured, is thought to kill 2,500 people in Britain each year

Melanoma, pictured, is thought to kill 2,500 people in Britain each year

The researchers first identified 15 signatures which were relevant by looking at 600 Australian patients, some of whom had melanoma and others who did not.

They then tested their approach with the help of doctors at the highly regarded Mayo Clinic in the US by looking at 119 American patients.

Half these patients were known to have melanoma. Of the other half, 20 were known to be totally healthy; 20 had benign skin lesions like age-related spots; and 20 had non-melanoma skin cancers, which tend to be less deadly.

The firm’s testing method, called EpiSwitch, correctly spotted individuals with melanoma more than 80 per cent of the time.

Dr Akoulitchev believes the test could save lives. He said: ‘Melanoma is one of the cancers where early diagnosis is essential.

‘Surgical intervention is one of the most effective ways of preventing the spread of melanoma to other parts of the body, if carried out early enough.’

Despite the test’s potential, Dr Akoulitchev said there had been little interest from fellow companies or organisations like the NHS in developing it further.

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Jarryd Roughead Receives Great news

Jarryd Roughead has revealed he is “cancer-free” and has had a “complete response” to his cancer treatment, opening up a return to footy and a normal life.

Roughead was spotted returning to Hawthorn training yesterday morning, and received the results of a recent scan yesterday afternoon.

There they told him the great news.

“(I) had the doctor’s appointment late afternoon yesterday, around three or four o’clock,” he said.

“Grant and the team at Peter Mac gave me the news that I’ve had a complete response from the treatment so far and he’s given me the all clear to get back into living a normal life.

“A complete response means that the lumps and tumours have gone. What we’re saying is the drugs that I’ve had have worked and killed off everything.”

It’s brilliant news for the Hawthorn star, and opens up a return to normality.

“(I can) get back to doing things I want, which is playing footy and living my life, which is what the plan was from the start,” he said.

“(It) reassures me that things are all good and we can get back to normal life.”

Roughead refused to put an exact timeline on when he would return to the field in brown and gold, but remained optimistic.

“The main thing is that I’m back being able to do this,” he said.

See the full interview here.

Recent Developments

Microneedle Patch Delivers Localized Cancer Immunotherapy to Melanoma

Microneedle Patch Delivers Localized Cancer Immunotherapy to Melanoma

Biomedical engineering researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have developed a technique that uses a patch embedded with microneedles to deliver cancer immunotherapy treatment directly to the site of melanoma skin cancer. In animal studies, the technique more effectively targeted melanoma than other immunotherapy treatments.

According to the CDC, more than 67,000 people in the United States were diagnosed with melanoma in 2012 alone – the most recent year for which data are available. If caught early, melanoma patients have a 5-year survival rate of more than 98 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute. That number dips to 16.6 percent if the cancer has metastasized before diagnosis and treatment. Melanoma treatments range from surgery to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. A promising new field of cancer treatment is cancer immunotherapy, which helps the body’s own immune system fight off cancer.

Fluorescence imaging of a microneedle patch. Image credit: Yanqi Ye.
Fluorescence imaging of a microneedle patch. Image credit: Yanqi Ye.

In the immune system, T cells are supposed to identify and kill cancer cells. To do their job, T cells use specialized receptors to differentiate healthy cells from cancer cells. But cancer cells can trick T cells. One way cancer cells do this is by expressing a protein ligand that binds to a receptor on the T cells to prevent the T cell from recognizing and attacking the cancer cell.

Recently, cancer immunotherapy research has focused on using “anti-PD-1” (or programmed cell death) antibodies to prevent cancer cells from tricking T cells.

“However, this poses several challenges,” says Chao Wang, co-lead author of a paper on the microneedle research and a postdoctoral researcher in the joint biomedical engineering program at NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill. “First, the anti-PD-1 antibodies are usually injected into the bloodstream, so they cannot target the tumor site effectively. Second, the overdose of antibodies can cause side effects such as an autoimmune disorder.”

To address these challenges, the researchers developed a patch that uses microneedles to deliver anti-PD-1 antibodies locally to the skin tumor. The microneedles are made from hyaluronic acid, a biocompatible material.

The anti-PD-1 antibodies are embedded in nanoparticles, along with glucose oxidase – an enzyme that produces acid when it comes into contact with glucose. These nanoparticles are then loaded into microneedles, which are arrayed on the surface of a patch.

When the patch is applied to a melanoma, blood enters the microneedles. The glucose in the blood makes the glucose oxidase produce acid, which slowly breaks down the nanoparticles. As the nanoparticles degrade, the anti-PD-1 antibodies are released into the tumor.

“This technique creates a steady, sustained release of antibodies directly into the tumor site; it is an efficient approach with enhanced retention of anti-PD-1 antibodies in the tumor microenvironment,” says Zhen Gu, an assistant professor in the biomedical engineering program and senior author of the paper.

The researchers tested the technique against melanoma in a mouse model. The microneedle patch loaded with anti-PD-1 nanoparticles was compared to treatment by injecting anti-PD-1 antibodies directly into the bloodstream and to injecting anti-PD-1 nanoparticles directly into the tumor.

“After 40 days, 40 percent of the mice who were treated using the microneedle patch survived and had no detectable remaining melanoma – compared to a zero percent survival rate for the control groups,” says Yanqi Ye, a Ph.D. student in Gu’s lab and co-lead author of the paper.

The researchers also created a drug cocktail, consisting of anti-PD-1 antibodies and another antibody called anti-CTLA-4 – which also helps T cells attack the cancer cells.

“Using a combination of anti-PD-1 and anti-CTLA-4 in the microneedle patch, 70 percent of the mice survived and had no detectable melanoma after 40 days,” Wang says.

“Because of the sustained and localized release manner, mediated by microneedles, we are able to achieve desirable therapeutic effects with a relatively low dosage, which reduces the risk of auto-immune disorders,” Gu says.

“We’re excited about this technique, and are seeking funding to pursue further studies and potential clinical translation,” Gu adds.

The paper, “Enhanced Cancer Immunotherapy by Microneedle Patch-Assisted Delivery of Anti-PD-1 Antibody,” is published in the journal Nano Letters. The paper was co-authored by Gabrielle Hochu, an undergraduate in the biomedical engineering program, and Hasan Sadeghifa, a postdoctoral researcher at NC State. The work was supported by NC TraCS, NIH’s Clinical and Translational Science Awards at UNC-Chapel Hill, under grant number 1UL1TR001111.


Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Enhanced Cancer Immunotherapy by Microneedle Patch-Assisted Delivery of Anti-PD1 Antibody”

Authors: Chao Wang, Yanqi Ye, Gabrielle M. Hochu, and Zhen Gu, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Hasan Sadeghifa, North Carolina State University

Published: March 21, Nano Letters

About me and reasons for this site

Hello  my name is Jim Cormack.  I live in Melbourne Australia.  Married to Nelly.  Four children and 6 grandchildren.  Now 63 years of age and retired from work but not life.

Australia has the highest incidence of skin cancer per head of population in the world.  Basically it boils down to Australian love of outdoor activities and competing in sport. The more you enjoy outdoor activities the greater the risk you have of getting skin cancer.

I played cricket and umpired cricket for 50 years and  spent up to 7 hours nearly every Saturday from October to March, when cricket is played in Australia.

In July 2013 I was diagnosed with a small melanoma on my left cheek. Over the coming four months I had four surgeries, getting progressively bigger.

The pathology from the last surgery came back as all clear of cancer in December 2013.

I attended for a review in March 2014 and after scans was diagnosed with Stage IV Melanoma which meant that the cancer (melanoma) had spread.

In late July/early August 2014 I began treatment on a drug new to Australia called Opdivo© or Nivolumab. This treatment was given by Peter MacCallum Hospital and involves fortnightly infusions given over one hour.

In December 2014 my scans showed 75% regression of all tumours and in March 2015 scans revealed that 100% of my tumours had disappeared. Subsequent scans in June, September and November 2015 have shown that I am still 100% tumour free.

I am writing this guide as I believe in giving back. I have the experience, knowledge and aptitude in sport as well as with cancer to help others from going through my traumatic experience.

In the following pages I will go deeper into skin cancer.  The statistics will be from Australia.  Australia has the highest per head skin cancer rate in the world. Plus I live in Australia and am treated by Australian healthcare professionals.