Melanoma vaccine to go on trial
By KIM THOMAS - The Press | Friday, 14 November 2008

Trials of a cutting-edge melanoma vaccine will begin in New Zealand next year as new research shows the country has the highest rate of the cancer in the world.

International experts will gather in Wellington today for the first melanoma summit to try to find ways to tackle New Zealand's massive cancer problem.

New research by melanoma specialist Richard Martin, of the Auckland-based New Zealand Melanoma Unit, has confirmed New Zealand's ranking as the worst nation for melanoma.

The skin cancer kills about 250 New Zealanders every year, and there are almost 2000 cases annually, mainly in older people.

Martin, who will present his research at a world conference next year, said New Zealand's high rates of melanoma were due to much of its population being fair-skinned but living in a Pacific country with harsh sun.

The ozone layer was thinner over New Zealand and a lack of pollution let through cancer-causing UV rays, Martin said.

Surgery was the only feasible option for people with melanoma, as chemotherapy and radiotherapy often proved ineffectual.

Martin said the race was on to develop an alternative treatment, most likely a vaccine designed to stimulate the body's immune system to fight the cancer.

International trials for a new melanoma vaccine would begin in January.

The New Zealand trials would be based at the melanoma unit in Auckland and would include participants from throughout New Zealand.

Martin hoped New Zealand researchers could also develop a vaccine soon.

Immunologist Ian Hermans, from Wellington's Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, has been involved in cancer-vaccines research for the past decade.

Studies had shown vaccines could make an impact, and in some people had caused the cancer to disappear.

The research was promising, but needed more testing in larger groups of patients, Hermans said.

The director of skin-cancer clinic Molecheck, Dr David Langford, of Christchurch, said there was a month's wait for services. Increased awareness meant more people were going to specialist clinics to get their skin checked.

This also meant more melanomas were being picked up, he said.

More New Zealanders were being diagnosed with thick, or well-developed melanomas, which more often proved fatal.

However, more than half of melanomas detected at Molecheck were thin, early-stage ones because its technology detected cancers under the skin.

A co-chairman of today's melanoma summit, Associate Professor Graham Stevens, of Auckland Hospital, said it aimed to develop a collective understanding of solutions needed to reduce the country's increasing melanoma rates.

"Prevention is an important part of reducing melanoma rates but the health sector also needs to develop better systems and approaches to share more information to ensure consistently higher standards of care for those diagnosed," he said.

Experts attending the summit include Professor John Thompson, director of Sydney's Melanoma Unit and a therapy world leader.

MELANOMA FACTS

Fourth most common cancer in New Zealand. Ninth most common cancer causing death. Nearly 2000 cases a year. 249 deaths in 2004 (152 men, 97 women). 70 per cent of cases in people over 50. Maori and Pacific Island people have lower chance of developing, but often have more serious cases.

From here.