Breakthroughs in melanoma research

5 April 2016 | Adjunct Professor Karen Canfell
Professor Xu Dong Zhang

Professor Xu Dong Zhang from the University of Newcastle is a leading melanoma researcher and has become a driving force in unlocking the many mysteries that surround this deadly form of cancer.  Thanks to ongoing funding from Cancer Council NSW, he has made some extraordinary breakthroughs that have made international headlines.

The major focus of Professor Zhang’s work has been understanding melanoma at the genetic level and using this information to direct new approaches to treatment. Ultimately, the goal is to improve the outcomes and survival of all people affected by this cancer.

Professor Zhang’s journey

In 2009, Professor Zhang received a Cancer Council NSW grant to explore why melanomas don’t respond to treatment. This project provided valuable evidence about how the malfunction of a one protein can cause this resistance. Building on this data, Professor Zhang then received another project grant in 2011. In the course of this project, he discovered key ways to exploit the mechanisms that melanomas use to stay alive. These mechanisms can be targeted to decrease resistance to treatment and make the cancer more vulnerable to therapy.

International breakthroughs

In 2013, Professor Zhang expanded on these results through two separate funding grants from Cancer Council NSW. This research has so far resulted in big discoveries that have captured global attention. One of these breakthroughs was finding that when a person lacks or loses a certain molecule (called PIB5PA) in their body, a biological chain reaction is triggered and this can cause melanoma. Professor Zhang and his research team showed that by restoring this molecule to normal levels, melanoma growth was blocked. Some tumours were even reduced in size. This has opened the door to a new, revolutionary approach to the treatment of melanoma.

Exciting new research

In recognition of Professor Zhang’s remarkable progress, Cancer Council NSW has funded a new research grant for 2016.

This particular project will focus on improving the effectiveness of a new class of melanoma drugs, called MAPK inhibitors. The current problem with these drugs is that most patients who respond well initially will end up relapsing.  Professor Zhang has discovered the cause of this problem.  We already know that the body’s immune system plays an important role in identifying and destroying cancer cells. However, the MAPK drugs help the melanoma cells escape destruction by the immune system. The cancer cells do this by sending out a “don’t eat me”.

This project will develop a way of targeting this ‘don’t eat me’ signal and combine this with the MAPK inhibitors so that patients don’t relapse. Already, researchers around the world are on the lookout for molecules that might play a similar role in the growth of other cancers.

Cancer Council NSW’s commitment to investing in vital, revolutionary research like Professor Zhang’s will ensure that important breakthroughs will keep getting made. Ultimately, this will help us achieve our vision of beating cancer.

Find out more about the research Cancer Council NSW is funding in 2016.