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Researchers close in on new melanoma gene

Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, has long been known to be caused by sun exposure but some people are more likely to develop it than others.

Despite the efforts of health authorities, melanoma incidences continue to rise around the world. By the year 2011, experts predict more than 11,600 new cases will be diagnosed in Australia compared to only 8,900 cases in 2001 (Source: AIHW, 2006).

However, a project by The Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) and The Translational Genomic Research Institute in the US may yet change these statistics. The team is close to discovering a new gene that could help explain variation in melanoma risk.

According to an article to be printed online by Nature Genetics (at 1800 Sunday, 18 May London time), they have identified a region on chromosome 20 (20q11.22) that influences a person’s risk of developing melanoma.

Compared to other genetics research focusing on familial cases of melanoma, Dr Stuart MacGregor from QIMR said their findings had implications for the general population.

“We’re closing in on genetic variants carried by one in six Australians which cause them to be at almost two-fold increased risk of developing the disease,” Dr MacGregor said. “In public health terms this finding is much more important than finding very rare genetic variants in a few specific families.”

“The aim of our work is to identify and understand the genetic factors influencing melanoma so we can refine risk estimates.

“This in turn, means people will be better informed and can take the right precautions to avoid developing this increasingly common cancer.”

The study, which began data collection 20 years ago and involved more than 4,000 Australian samples (2,019 cases and 2,105 controls) was a joint project between Australian, American and European research groups.