WA biotech discovery to improve skin cancer diagnosis

Updated: May 22, 2019

Stuart McKinnon | The West Australian

Monday, 19 November 2018

A Perth medical science student is commercialising a new biotechnology that is set to dramatically improve the diagnosis of melanoma skin cancer.

Edith Cowan University PhD candidate Pauline Zaenker has developed a blood test that can detect melanoma by checking for a combination of biomarkers produced by a person’s immune system in the earliest stage of the cancer.

The 28-year-old said she began working on the technology in 2012 as a way of improving the early diagnosis of skin cancer, which relies on a skin check and biopsy.

“We know that survival rates for melanoma skin cancer can be as high as 98 per cent if it’s detected early but can fall to below 50 per cent if the cancer is allowed to spread,” she said.

Ms Zaenker said skin checks worked well but there were some cases being missed that had led to advanced-stage melanoma in some patients.

“We thought, ‘what else can we do’,” she said.

Biomarkers such as cancer cells and tumour DNA are found only in the blood of advanced-stage patients so Ms Zaenker turned her mind to autoantibodies produced by the body’s immune response to the tumour.

Using a $500,000 grant from the Federal Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council, Ms Zaenker recruited 104 early-stage melanoma patients and 105 healthy volunteers and screened their blood. From the data she developed a list of 139 individual autoantibodies that might be useful in the diagnosis of the cancer.

Ms Zaenker then distilled the data to identify a combination of 10 biomarkers that detected as many melanoma cases as possible while also giving as many “true negatives”.

The test has proved to be 81.5 per cent accurate and is able to detect cancer at its earliest stage, when melanomas are as small as 1mm-thick.

Now ECU and Ms Zaenker are eyeing the possibility of using the technology as the basis for a spin-out company named MelDx.

The plan is to develop a diagnostic kit based on the technology that can be used on machines already commonly used in pathology labs.

The next step is to organise a clinical trial as part of an application for approvals from the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia and the Food and Drug Administration in the US.

The Nedlands-based Centre for Entrepreneurial Research and Innovation (CERI) has provided courses to help Ms Zaenker develop her entrepreneurial skills as she embarks on the development of her business.

The Charlie Bass-founded centre had taught her how to write a business plan, make a pitch and engage with investors. The courses and guidance had given her the confidence to commercialise the technology herself rather than selling it off for someone else to develop.

Ms Zaenker said the product could be ready for sale within five years.

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