2020 Research Grants

The AMRF has awarded the 2020 research projects. Quality applications were received from around the country to make a very competitive field. 

Thanks to our generous donors throughout the year, we are once again thrilled to announce our research grants for 2020.

In line with our vision going forward, these grants continue the work in different areas of research which investigate the many different pathways that will ultimately change outcomes for people diagnosed with melanoma, and to improve the current alarming statistics.

It is only with the support of our melanoma community, AMRF team and board that we can strive to achieve the best outcome now and for future generations.

We wish to acknowledge the incredible support given by donors, volunteers and fundraisers Australia wide. Thank you.

Early Career Researcher

Identification of prognostic melanoma autoantibodies

Dr Pauline Zaenker
Edith Cowan University, Perth

Postgraduate

Research into liver metastases from cutaneous (skin) melanoma

PhD student Jordan Conway
Uni Sydney, MIA

Postgraduate

Research into early detection of uveal (eye) melanoma

PhD student Aaron Beasley
Edith Cowan University, Perth

Identification of prognostic melanoma autoantibodies

Dr Pauline Zaenker

Edith Cowan University, Perth

Dr Pauline Zaenker, a postdoctoral research fellow at Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Perth has been awarded one of the 2020 Australian Melanoma Research Foundation (AMRF) Early Career Scientist Grants. Dr Zaenker is a long-standing member of the Melanoma Research Group at ECU who are experts in the identification of blood-based biomarkers in patients with melanoma and other malignancies. 

Dr Zaenker specialises in the identification of cancer-associated autoantibodies, markers of the patients’ immune response, for the diagnosis of melanoma from a simple blood sample. In this project and with the help from the AMRF, Dr Zaenker will work alongside Associate Professor Elin Gray, leader of the Melanoma Research Group (ECU), and Masters by Research student Miss Desiree Sexauer to follow up a large cohort of early stage melanoma patients and test whether autoantibody levels at the time of diagnosis of the primary melanoma tumour could serve as an indicator of risk of the melanoma to spread and an indicator of shortened overall patient survival. 

The research team anticipate that the knowledge gained from this study will contribute towards the future development of a simple blood test in the clinic that may be used as an additional tool to further strengthen the ongoing surveillance of melanoma. 

Miss Desiree Sexauer, Dr Pauline Zaenker and Associate Professor Elin Gray

Dr Inês Pires Da Silva and Mr Jordan Conway

Research into liver metastases from cutaneous (skin) melanoma

Jordan Conway

PhD student, Uni Sydney, MIA

Immunotherapy, a form of treatment that aims to harness and boost a patients’ own immune system, is the current standard of care for patients with advanced metastatic melanoma. This treatment regimen is leading the way in increasing survival rates in patients whose melanoma has metastasised to other sites around their body. While these therapies have bettered outcomes for many patients and show promise in achieving long term control of their disease, there are still a large number of patients who do not respond to these treatments. 

We are continually developing our understanding of the importance of tailored treatments that are as personalised as possible to achieve better long term outcomes for individual patients. We are now aware that the area of the body that melanoma spreads to, i.e. the liver, the lung, etc. can have a significant impact on the chances of a patient responding to therapy. 

Specifically, we know patients whose melanoma has spread to their liver tend to respond worse than those without liver metastases.  

The goal of my research is to understand the biological reason why our best therapies don’t work as efficiently on patients whose melanoma has spread to their liver. 

My aim is to identify new immune markers within the liver that we can potentially target with new treatments in order to increase response rates.  I will look within the tumour microenvironment, and assess the abundance of specific immune cells to try to identify these new targets. My goal is then to develop an experimental model that we can use in the laboratory to test on patient samples to try and identify which treatment regimen or novel treatment option may be best suited for each patient.

The development of a real-time, personalised, human model of response will enable the development of new therapy options and guide new clinical trials for patients with liver metastases, while also being utilised in routine care for all patients as a more personalised treatment approach.

 

Research into early detection of uveal (eye) melanoma

Aaron Beasley

PhD student, Edith Cowan University, Perth

Uveal melanoma is the most common cancer of the eye in adults.

Approximately 8.6 per million per year are diagnosed with the disease in Australia. Although rare, about 50% will have spread of the disease from the eye to other organs and sites within the body, and once this occurs approximately 92% of people will die within two years. Unlike cutaneous (skin) melanoma, there are no effective systemic therapeutic agents for control of the disease. Currently, only complete surgical removal of metastatic tumour impacts overall survival. This, however, requires early detection of the disease via radiological scans, which can be unspecific and have limited sensitivity. 

This project aims to develop a minimally invasive, robust and UM-specific blood test to supplement the current standard of care.

For this blood test, we will be measuring the levels of circulating tumour DNA or ctDNA present in the plasma of patients. Circulating tumour DNA is shed into the blood when cancer cells within the body die. We have previously reported that we could detect the presence of ctDNA prior to radiological scan in patients with UM, and we could even detect ctDNA in cases where the results were inconclusive. 

With the wonderful support of the AMRF, we will be validating whether ctDNA can be detected before or at the time of cancer spread based on radiological scans. 

At the end of the project, we will be able to show that ctDNA can enable timely detection of the cancer spread, when patients can still undergo complete tumour resection, and when available, post-operative systemic treatments for long-term survival benefit.

The outcomes of this study will provide foundational data to support a large-scale investigation on routine ctDNA testing in the management of uveal melanoma.

Mr Aaron Beasley

Melanoma research

The AMRF is committed to funding research aimed at furthering knowledge and offering better outcomes in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of melanoma.

The AMRF will focus on supporting early career researchers in Australia.

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