New combination drug treatments could prevent the spreading of melanoma in the body and its progression into more advanced skin cancers.
A pair of international clinical trials conducted by Australian researchers found that the use of combined, targeted therapies on patients with an earlier stage of the disease can stop melanoma from spreading to other organs.
The studies, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found success in using a combination of the drugs dabrafenib and trametinib, as well as nivolumab or ipilimumab in stage-three melanoma patients whose tumours had been surgically removed.
Those with stage-three melanoma are at a high risk – 40 to 70 per cent – of their disease progressing to advanced levels that are potentially fatal.
Melanoma research has come a long way in recent years. As recently as 2009, only 30 per cent of patients with stage-four melanoma were expected to survive one year from diagnosis.
With medical advances such as these, survival rates have soared to 75 per cent.
But there is still a long way to go, with one Australian dying from advanced melanoma every five hours.
Study author Professor Georgina Long said melanoma could now be successfully attacked at an earlier stage, reducing anxiety about the likelihood of the cancer advancing into a terminal illness.
University of Queensland’s Richard Sturm, deputy director of the Dermatology Research Centre, said the research proves that, in future, combination drugs will become the standard therapy.
“It’s pretty clear that combination drugs are the way to go,” the associate professor said.
“We know that many of these drugs are very effective when used as a single agent. So when you put them together, you get an even better response.
“But it’s a therapy not a cure. There’s not going to be one magic bullet for melanoma.”
Associate Professor Sturm said he expected such treatments would be commercially available within three years but he had some concerns.
“These kind of drugs cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per treatment,” he said.
“The average patient can’t afford that.
“I would hope that in a few years’ time these would become available and that the price comes down, so that this can become a standard therapy.
“Subsidies will need to be addressed by politicians and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.”
History teacher and mother Renae Aslanis took part in the clinical trials after having 10 lymph nodes removed as part of her cancer treatment regimen. She is still “going strong” four-and-a-half years later.
“After surgery, prior to targeted therapy treatment, I was told the statistics for five-year survival rates for Stage IIIB patients were 54 per cent.
“Seeing the hardship and suffering reflected in the eyes of my daughter, parents, siblings, other family members and close friends has been incredibly difficult.
“I am a very lucky person and for that I am extremely grateful.”
Melanoma rates in Australia
Melanoma is a serious skin cancer and the fourth-most common cancer in Australia.
Australia has one of the highest incidences of melanoma in the world, with about 14,000 people across the country expected to be diagnosed this year alone; of which 1800 are expected to die from melanoma.
While 90 per cent of people are able to be cured with the removal of a primary melanoma cancer through surgery, the cancer spreads in the other 10 per cent because it is detected too late.
This breakthrough research has come two weeks after it was reported that Australia’s annual melanoma diagnoses had risen from 8885 to 13,000 over the past 16 years.