Cancer Research UK says more and more people are surviving malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Their latest statistics, published online this week, reveal that more than 8 in 10 people diagnosed with malignant melanoma will now survive the disease. Forty years ago, the survival rate was only around 5 in 10.

The charity says the improvement is most likely due to better treatments and earlier diagnosis, and also because people are more aware of the symptoms.

The report shows that 80% of men and 90% of women live more than ten years after being diagnosed with malignant melanoma compared with only 38% of men and 58% of women in the early 70s.

In the UK every day, around 35 people discover they have malignant melanoma, totalling nearly 13,000 new cases a year.

Professor Richard Marais, director of the Cancer Research UK Paterson Institute for Cancer Research at the University of Manchester, says in a statement that much of the huge progress in the fight against skin cancer is down to the generosity of supporters who have funded research that increases understanding of the disease and finds new ways to beat it. He says:

More and more people are beating skin cancer but we can’t stop there and we need to develop better treatments for the 2 out of 10 where things don’t look so good.”

There are now some very effective new drugs, such as vemurafenib, which was developed with the help of research funded by the charity.

“Although these drugs do not cure skin cancers, they can give patients with advanced melanoma valuable extra months and show the progress we are making,” Marais adds.

Skin cancer is one of the fastest rising cancers in the UK, which the charity says is likely due to more Britons sunbathing than before, and the rise of cheap package holidays in earlier decades.

Treatment for skin cancer is more likely to succeed the earlier the disease is detected.

The key to early diagnosis, says Dr. Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, is to get to know your skin, notice anything unusual, such as a change to a mole or a blemish that hasn’t healed after a few weeks, and see your doctor.

One area that has seen enormous progress in research on melanoma is genetics.

Melanoma is really an umbrella term for the most virulent types of skin cancer. It is a highly complex disease from a genetic point of view: melanoma tumors have more mutations per cell than any other type of cancer.

An example of how scientists are investigating the genetics of melanoma is following up on the knowledge that ultraviolet light from the sun damages DNA, which increases the chance of normal skin cells becoming cancerous.

Scientists can use the information gained from studying how UV light damages DNA to develop new treatments.

One study by Cancer Research UK, which is looking at genetic changes that cause skin cancer, is collecting samples of tissue and blood from people diagnosed with melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer of the head and neck.

The researchers are examining the samples to find genetic changes that may be responsible for the cancer and to discover how the immune system reacts to the cancer.

In another piece of research, scientists have discovered that people who have inherited a faulty gene called p16 or CDKN2A have a higher risk for developing melanoma than people who do not have the faulty gene.

They are now running a long-term study to find out how genes and environment affect risk of developing melanoma.

Fortunately thanks to new tools like DNA sequencing, scientists are able to sort through huge volumes of data to decode each melanoma tumor’s genetic “fingerprint.”

For example, Prof. Marais was the lead author on another Cancer Research UK study that recently revealed how DNA sequencing helped the team find possible new treatment targets for a rare form of cancer known as mucosal melanoma.

The list of known gene flaws that cause melanoma is growing. This opens doors to new drugs that can target the effect of these faulty genes by blocking the signalling pathways that cause cells to malfunction and make tumors grow and spread.

There are currently about 100 new drugs being developed to treat melanoma, and new combinations of drugs show promise as treatments that block these tumor-causing signalling pathways.

In a recent journal report, Brian Nickoloff, director of a dermatology and cutaneous sciences division at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine in the US, and colleagues outline recent advances that have put melanoma at the forefront of cancer research.

Nickoloff says he has been working in this field for 30 years, and “now is by any measure the most exciting time for melanoma research.”

“In the past melanoma outsmarted us, but now we’re starting to outsmart melanoma,” he adds.

For more information on the latest melanoma research see the Cancer Research UK web page.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD