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QIMR in the hunt for genes that prevent skin cancer

The Queensland Institute of Medical Research has embarked on a world-first study into which genes prevent skin cancer.

Dr Graeme Walker, from QIMR’s Skin Carcinogenesis Laboratory, said instead of focussing on the genes that cause cancer, they hope to isolate genes that mobilise the body’s natural defences against skin cancers.

“Ultimately, we’d hope this leads to drugs, or other treatments, that can mimic the effect of these protective genes,” Dr Walker said.

“This research will also lead to a much fuller understanding of the genetics of how melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) progress from benign to malignant forms.”

About 1200 Australians die from melanoma each year. Queensland has the highest rates of melanoma and skin cancer in the world, with 2000 cases of melanoma annually, and more than 100,000 people treated for other types of skin cancer each year.

Dr Walker is working with Professor Grant Morahan from the University of Western Australia, who has developed a new strategy to find genes for complex diseases (those where many genes are involved). Together they aim to discover “resistance” genes that counteract the cancer-inducing mutations that drive skin cancer development.

For the first time, they’ll attempt to identify the positive steps the body takes to protect itself from skin cancer.

“Using this new strategy we can isolate genes that protect a person, and then design drugs that have the same effect,” Dr Walker said.

Funding for this work has been provided by the Scott Kirkbride Melanoma Research Centre (Perth, WA). The project has recently been awarded a two-year grant by the Melanoma Research Alliance (Washington, USA).