Australian researchers develop 'world first' melanoma blood test

Early stage melanoma can often be difficult to distinguish from a mole

Australian researchers have developed a world-first blood test to detect deadly melanoma in early stage patients.

Though subsequent studies must validate these findings, the test could save tens of thousands of lives and millions in healthcare costs.

The new blood test, in a trial involving 105 people with melanoma and 104 healthy controls, was able to detect early stage melanoma in 81.5% of cases.

Lead researcher Pauline Zaenker, of ECU's Melanoma Research Group, said patients whose melanoma was detected early had a five-year survival rate of 90 to 99 per cent.

The next step, the researchers said, will be to take MelDX to clinical trial, which is now being organised, and which could help refine the test.

One in every three cancers diagnosed is a skin cancer, according to the World Health Organisation, with Australia having among the highest incidences of melanoma in the world.

With a sensitivity of 79 percent and specificity of 84 percent - meaning it would fail to catch 21 percent of cases and 16 percent of positive results would be false positives - the new panel is reportedly the first lab-based method for objective skin cancer detection that's accurate enough for use in a real-world clinic setting.

Melanoma is usually found by a visual scan by a clinician, with any concerning areas of skin excised for a biopsy.

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The blood test works by detecting combinations of protein antibodies produced by the body in response to melanoma.

The test will not pick up other types of skin cancers such as squamous cell and basal cell carcinoma, researchers said.

"While clinicians do a fantastic job with the tools available, relying on biopsies alone can be problematic. We know that three out of four biopsies come back negative for melanoma", she said.

"The biopsies are quite invasive, with a minimum of 1cm by 1cm of skin excised from the patient".

"Often in routine clinical practice, it can be a little hard to tell an early stage melanoma from a mole", she told the BBC.

The Australian health system spends $201 million on melanoma a year with another $73 million on negative biopsies. After analysis, researchers identified 10 auto-antibodies that best indicated the presence of melanoma. "The ultimate goal is for this blood test to be used to provide greater diagnostic certainty prior to biopsy".

While specialists are well-trained to spot melanoma, Prof Mel Ziman, head of the research team, said the blood test could hasten diagnosis.

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