Research and Rescue

Pioneering skin cancer drug research is helping to prolong life expectancies

Malignant Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer. More than 14,500 people a year are diagnosed with it in the UK.

Aggressive forms of Malignant Melanoma are difficult to treat. They grow and spread quickly to other parts of the body. The 5-year survival rate is less than 15% in patients with metastatic disease that has spread. Currently treatment involves surgically removing the affected area of the skin.  But this form of treatment is only successful if the patient seeks medical advice early enough. In cases where the cancer has spread, treatment proves to be more complex.

In the UK we treat melanoma with the approved drug called vemurafenib. It is used when patients have a specific mutation in a gene which drives uncontrolled growth of the cells in the skin. Vemurafenib offers significant tumour regression in 60% of patients just days into treatment. However the effects of the drug only last six to nine months, with the majority of patients developing resistance to the drug. This causes tumours to regrow and spread throughout the body.

Aside from new advances in immunotherapy, vemurafenib is the only treatment option available to patients that prolongs life expectancy – even for a limited time.

A new research project funded by North West Cancer Research, at the University of Liverpool, has generated significant results into new treatments. This research breakthrough could prolong the effects of the drug vemurafenib.

The project led by Dr Michael Cross, Lecturer in the Department of Molecular and Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Liverpool, and Mr Rowan Pritchard-Jones, Consultant Plastic Surgeon at Whiston Hospital. The research looks at why resistance to vemurafenib occurs. Allowing researchers to improve melanoma cancer treatments, by overcoming this resistance.

Their research, which uses in vitro cell models (cell samples cultured within a laboratory), has found that the behaviour of the remaining melanoma cells triggers the regrowth of tumours. These remaining cells produce growth factors that stimulate blood and lymphatic vessel growth, allowing oxygen and nutrients to reach the tumour causing it to grow and spread.

The next step in this project will use samples from patients with melanoma. The researchers will also look to use 3D tumour spheroid models. These models build a tumour using both the melanoma cells, and the normal skin and blood vessel cells that surround it. This novel technology allows researchers to develop a deeper understanding of cell behaviour.

Dr Michael Cross said: “Malignant melanoma is one of the most deadly cancers and the reality is that the number of people being diagnosed with it will continue to rise for at least the next 15 to 20 years.

“Whereas with other cancers such as lung, breast and prostate, we expect to see a plateau and eventual decrease in the number of new cases. This is unlikely to happen with melanoma, as the effects of historical sun worshipping and the use of sun beds begin to manifest.

“Currently there has been little research into skin cancer therapies, which is why prognosis for some patients can be poor. However thanks to funding from organisations like North West Cancer Research, we are now able to start making inroads into developing more effective treatments for this disease.”

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