Dr James Wilmott says his Wildfire Award will help expand research into treatment options for people with mucosal melanoma, a rare but deadly form of skin cancer.
Part of the team at Melanoma Institute Australia, Dr Wilmott was recognised at the annual Premier’s Awards for Outstanding Cancer Research for the global success of a recent publication leading to improvements in melanoma treatment.
“The result of winning an award like this is that we have some seed funding to start on a new project that aims to identify new drug targets for people with mucosal melanoma,” Dr Wilmott says.
“It’s a type of cancer where we don’t know a lot about the genomic alterations that drive the growth and survival.”
Different from melanomas arising in sun-exposed skin, mucosal melanoma isn’t related to UV exposure, and there are currently no known risk factors.
Mucosal surfaces of the body include the lining of the sinuses, nasal passages and oral cavity.
Dr Wilmott hopes that through this research new treatments could be developed for people living with the disease.
“We have completed a whole genome sequencing project that extensively characterised all the genomic mutations of a range of melanomas, including mucosal melanoma,” he explains.
“We have discovered some major differences in the types of genomic alterations that are present in melanoma that arises in sun-exposed sites compared to the sun-shielded sites, like mucosal and acral surfaces.”
“We hope the data from this study will be released in the near future by one of the top medical journals.”
While mucosal melanomas are expected to only make up 1 per cent of all melanomas, mucosal and acral melonamas (arising on soles of hands and feet) make up the majority of melanomas in Asian populations.
The rarity of genomic data and lack of known treatable genomic drivers means treatment in advanced stages of disease is difficult.
Giving melanoma treatment to the world
Dr Wilmott and his team at Melanoma Institute Australia are already responsible for changing the lives of people with melanoma, though.
Their win at the 2016 Premier’s Awards for Outstanding Cancer Research came for the paper ‘Immunohistochemistry is highly sensitive and specific for the detection of V600E BRAF mutation in melanoma.’
It’s a paper that has changed the way people are able to be treated for melanoma, enabling accelerated mutations testing of melanoma patients, and giving fast access to potentially life-saving treatments.
“It detects BRAF-V600E mutations in cancer tissue – the most common mutation present in melanoma patients and making up 80 per cent of all mutations that occur in the BRAF gene,” Dr Wilmott explains.
People are tested to see if they have the mutation, and this informs the drugs they’re able to receive as treatment.
Dr Wilmott and his team were looking at the impact of a new test: immunohistochemical analysis using a BRAF (V600E) antibody.
“We were looking for a faster, cheaper test – something that you can get the results from quickly and while conventional testing was conducted.”
In trialling the immunohistochemistry analysis, they found it could make all the difference to someone with advanced stages of the disease.
“With this new test, it can be performed and the results come back to the patient overnight.”
“It can quickly deliver help for people with advanced melanoma, people dying in hospital.”
“If these people had to wait a week for their results, they could die waiting to know if they can take drugs to save their life.”
There was scarcely a year between publishing the test and it becoming active, and it’s been cited by over 160 journals to date worldwide.
Dr Wilmott says this kind of work, this kind of special result, can reach people and change lives. It’s why he loves the outcomes that can be achieved in this area of research.
“The fact that it’s been taken up by pathology departments around the world and the fact they’re actually using the test is a great feeling.”
“It’s great that it has a practical use and we can see it actively helping people who could otherwise be dying.”