US enlists IMB to seek new ways to battle melanoma

12 September 2022

Researchers from the Institute for Molecular Bioscience have been awarded international funding to combat an expected escalation of skin cancer cases in US troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dr Samantha Stehbens and Dr Mel White will spend three years combining their work in cancer biology and neuroscience after receiving a United States Department of Defense Melanoma Research Program Idea Award.

Dr Samantha Stehbens and Dr Mel White

An increasing problem for returning US troops

“Only 13 per cent of the 3 million US defence staff deployed in Iraq during the Operation Iraqi Freedom missions wore sunscreen, so the rate of melanoma in returned troops is increasing,” Dr Stehbens said.

“Melanoma is often fatal because it is particularly efficient at travelling to the brain and thriving once it gets there.

“Unfortunately, once it reaches the brain it becomes increasingly difficult to treat, with a median overall survival of just 5 to 11 months.”

Melanoma thrives in the brain

Melanoma is the most common cancer diagnosed in Australians aged 25-29 years, so the researchers say their work will also have local benefits.

The project is looking at ways to stop melanoma progressing to the brain and how the brain environment can affect the seeding of tumours.

“Understanding how melanoma cells react in the soft tissue of the brain is crucial to treating this disease,” Dr White said.

New techniques to understand melanoma in the brain

melanoma cells in the neural tube
Imaging of melanoma cells in the neural tube

“We have built models in our labs to help us understand what happens to melanoma cells in response to different therapies.

“One model is a brain-on-a-chip device where we can grow tumour cells in the presence of blood vessels and brain tissue scaffolds.

“We have also established a new pre-clinical model at UQ using transgenic quails to examine how melanoma cells behave in a neural like environment.”

A team of experts with new ideas

The UQ researchers have established an interdisciplinary team with expertise in cancer biology, neuroscience, vascular biology, clinical radiation oncology, physics and materials chemistry to help them address problems that can’t be tackled by an individual laboratory.

The team includes Professor Alan Rowan from UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, Professor Paul Timpson from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Dr Anne Lagendijk from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience and Associate Professor Mark Pinkham from UQ and the Princess Alexandra Hospital’s Gamma Knife® Centre of Queensland.

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