A new molecule involved in melanoma vascular development
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, and numbers of new diagnoses are increasing in Australia every year. Once a primary tumour in the skin has begun to spread around the body, treatment options are limited and the disease is largely fatal. For this reason, our research aims to develop new treatments for patients with this advanced form of melanoma (metastatic melanoma). Solid tumours such as melanoma need access to the blood supply in order to continue growing and to spread through the body. Without a blood supply, the tumour can no longer grow. Our team is therefore exploring how new blood vessels develop in melanoma, in order to better understand the process. As part of this research, we have identified a molecule which appears to control melanoma blood vessel formation. We hope that this information will allow us to develop new treatments which can prevent blood vessel development in patients with metastatic melanoma. Without blood vessels, the cancer cells will no longer have access to the blood supply and will effectively be starved, resulting in tumour shrinkage.
What we aim to achieve
Melanoma kills more than 1,500 Australians every year. This is despite the development of new therapies which work very well for a handful of patients, but have no beneficial effect on the majority. We hope that by targeting the development of blood vessels, which is an absolutely critical requirement for tumour growth, we will be able to develop new treatments that work for all patients with melanoma, not just a few. Furthermore, because many other cancers such as breast, lung and colon cancer also require blood vessels for tumour growth, we hope that our results will provide a pathway to new treatments for other cancer types as well.
Our next steps and milestones
We have identified a potential new therapeutic target in melanoma. We have found that this molecule (known as DSG2) plays a key role in melanoma blood vessel development, and therefore blocking its function would be expected to reduce tumour growth. The next steps are to take our results to a pre-clinical model, to determine if blocking DSG2 using a small peptide, which has already been safely used in humans, can slow or prevent tumour growth. We also aim to analyse a large collection of patient tumour tissue samples to determine if expression of DSG2 is associated with poor prognosis. Together, these future studies should pave the way for the development of new diagnostic tests and treatments in metastatic melanoma.
What motivates me
The human body is fascinating, and spending my life's work trying to understand how it functions and what goes wrong in cancer is a real privilege. We have all been touched by cancer in some way, and the idea that I could contribute toward reducing this burden on society is truly motivating. I am particularly driven to take new findings from our lab-based research and translate these discoveries into real-world outcomes for people with cancer. Having one of my discoveries eventually save the lives of people with cancer would be profoundly satisfying.
My message to supporters
Cancer is a very complex and diverse disease, but understanding it is the key to treating it. This understanding only comes from intensive research at all levels - from the basic biology of what causes a cell to become cancerous, all the way to large-scale clinical trials of new treatments. However, this research takes a lot of time and is very expensive, which is why the financial support of organisations such as Cancer Council SA is so critical. With your support, we are gradually gaining a deeper understanding of all facets of cancer biology, and this is already leading to significant improvements in diagnosis and treatment. With continued support, we can learn so much more and hopefully one day make cancer a completely manageable disease.