An innovative project at the forefront of cancer research will help identify skin cancer patients with a high risk of the disease spreading to other parts of the body.
Melanoma Focus – a national charity dedicated to providing a comprehensive and authoritative source of information for public and professionals, as well as supporting education and promoting research about melanoma – has provided a scientific group at Newcastle University with a £100,000 grant, as part of its patient impact programme.
Dr Rob Ellis, consultant dermatologist at The James Cook University Hospital and honorary clinical senior lecturer at Newcastle University along with Professor Penny Lovat from the university, are leading the project to look at why ulceration of the skin above a melanoma leads to a greater risk of the disease spreading.
The study, which will be conducted over 18 months, aims to validate the role of prognostic biomarkers for the early detection of high-risk melanomas – Ambra-1 and Loricrin – and how the levels of these two proteins change in the layer of skin over melanomas.
The findings will help improve diagnosis, by predicting which patients are at a higher risk of their skin cancer spreading to other parts of the body (metastatic melanoma) and as such require closer follow-up. This would allow patients to plan for their future treatment appropriately and help to reduce uncertainty.
Initial evidence suggests these markers may also help design a new drug to be given to high-risk patients at initial surgery, to help prevent the spread of the disease and reduce overall mortality.
The initial patient recruitment and pathology work for the project was carried out at The James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough, thanks to a £3,000 donation from James Cook University Hospital Voluntary Services to Dr Ellis.
This donation allowed initial patient samples to be created, which were used to generate pilot data for the successful grant application. It also paid for a biomedical scientist, Alison Greenwood’s time to work on the project and for some of the antibodies and laboratory kit required for the samples to be prepared and analysed.
Following the Melanoma Focus grant, historical melanoma samples will be collected and analysed in the histopathology laboratory at James Cook and will form a large part of Dr Diana Tang, a current dermatology registrar’s research doctorate. A new full time laboratory scientist post at Newcastle University will also be created, to allow further analysis of the melanoma samples produced during the project.
Dr Rob Ellis said: “If the biomarkers we are developing continue to identify high risk patients, they may well become part of the formal staging criteria for melanoma and as such be adopted worldwide. This would put James Cook on the map as a centre of skin cancer excellence, as well as strengthen our ties with the internationally recognised academic melanoma research at Newcastle University.
“Without the backing of James Cook University Hospital Voluntary Services we would have found it difficult to further develop our initial findings in melanoma samples. Their generous donation will hopefully have a positive impact on not only patients at James Cook, but potentially much further afield.”
“We are looking forward to working on this exciting project and are grateful for the Melanoma Focus grant, which will importantly lead to more joint working on future skin cancer projects for the benefit of our patients.”