SBMS melanoma research grant renamed after Gold Coast Airport Marathon

22 Jul 2015

A Cancer Council Queensland melanoma research grant awarded to The University of Queensland's School of Biomedical Sciences' Dr Aaron Smith has been officially re-named the Gold Coast Airport Marathon Cancer Research Grant.

The renaming took place to acknowledge the long-standing relationship between the Gold Coast Airport Marathon and the Cancer Council Queensland (CCQ), an official beneficiary of the popular annual event.

Dr Smith’s grant, Investigating the role of the NR4A nuclear receptor family in melanocyte function and tumourigenesis, was chosen by the Gold Coast Airport Marathon to be renamed from several grant names put forward by the CCQ.

The $200,000 CCQ grant was awarded to Dr Smith in 2014 to investigate the important role NR4A proteins play in preventing melanoma development and how these proteins subsequently impact on treatment responses.

“My broad research interest is to understand the different stages of melanoma development, from the genetics underpinning predisposition through to the processes driving melanoma metastasis,” Dr Smith said.

“Several years ago our research found that NR4A proteins play an important role in preventing melanoma development by repairing the damage caused by UV radiation, the leading cause of melanoma. These proteins also have the potential to be highly effective drug targets.

“Unfortunately, protectors such as the NR4A proteins can become part of the problem in cancer cells.

“Our more recent research has found that once metastatic melanoma has developed, rather than providing protection from melanoma cells, the NR4A begins to protect the melanoma cells from the drugs being used as treatment.”

Dr Smith said an exciting area in recent international melanoma research had been the development of specific therapies to target the most common signature mutation present in 50 per cent of patients with metastatic melanoma.

“There is a wealth of previous research that shows that specifically targeting this signature mutation with specific therapies has led to amazing clinical responses. Many patients at end stage disease with a heavy tumour burden have had virtually no detectable tumours visible after treatment.  Unfortunately, in about 90 per cent of patients, the tumours return and are resistant to further therapies.   

“Our current research under the Gold Coast Airport Marathon Cancer Research Grant is focussed on looking at the role NR4A plays from both ends of the disease spectrum: how the protein is protecting melanocytes from transforming into melanoma in the first instance; and how its protective role can contribute to acquired resistance to therapy in advanced disease.

“We’ve still got a long way to go and I think a marathon is a good metaphor for cancer research because it is a marathon, it’s definitely not a sprint.”

According to Cancer Council Queensland statistics, Queensland has the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Around 3000 melanoma and 133,000 non-melanoma skin cancers are diagnosed across the State each year.

Funds raised by the Gold Coast Airport Marathon are used to fund important work in melanoma research, education and patient support services provided by the Cancer Council Queensland.

Dr Smith attended the Gold Coast Airport Marathon as a guest of the Cancer Council Queensland in early July. As well as watching the 27,000 runners take part in the Marathon, he also took part in a Q&A session about cancer research at the Gala Dinner the evening before the event, MC’d by Mark Baretta form Channel 7’s Sunrise program.