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Science that could save your skin

February 08, 2021

Stem cell project targets two diseases: melanoma and vitiligo

The Foundation is backing Professor Mark Shackleton’s stem cell research aimed at preventing melanoma and treating vitiligo – two diseases affecting the melanin pigment-producing cells, called melanocytes.

His project was one of four selected by the Foundation last year to receive a total of $100,000; with the Foundation matching the $50,000 provided by other donors.

While we’ve met the funding cap for this project, you can still donate to support Mark’s work and we will pass the funds on.

Melanoma is an aggressive cancer that kills nearly 1,400 Australians each year.

Vitiligo, a condition where patches of skin stop producing pigment and become pale or white, may not be life-threatening, but it can cause deep distress to the one in every 100 Australians who develop it.

Mark, an oncologist and researcher at the Alfred Hospital and Monash University in Melbourne, and his team believe stem cell science could hold the answers to both conditions and are working to bring treatments to clinical trials within five years.

“In essence, there’s two main diseases which arise from melanocytes: one involves having too many melanocytes, which is melanoma, and the other results from not having enough melanocytes, which is vitiligo,” Mark says.

Mark’s approach centres on adapting drugs, treatments and techniques that have demonstrated safe use for other conditions.

He believes his research could lead to clinical trials for vitiligo treatments and melanoma-prevention within five years.

For example, he has found that a blood cancer drug undergoing clinical trials can protect melanocytes from the effects of UV radiation in the lab.

“Early trials show the drug is relatively safe. It’s never been applied directly to the skin, but it’s well tolerated inside the body at safe doses, so it’s likely to be translatable for use in, say, a protective cream for the skin.”

Similarly, he wants to see if a drug that promotes the growth of brain cells—also undergoing human trials to treat dementia—can be applied to the skin of people with vitiligo to promote growth of their melanocytes.

A third option is adapting an existing approach to vitiligo treatment of transplanting melanocytes to affected patches of skin by transplanting melanocyte stem cells.

“The fact that we’re adapting existing procedures should make it a relatively easy to take them to the clinic,” says Mark.

“Stem cells typically live longer in tissues than non-stem cells. Their transplantation to treat vitiligo might thus be required less frequently and produce a better cosmetic result than currently possible.”

While Mark has an impressive recent track record in cancer research and trained initially in stem cell biology, this is the first time he’s been able to obtain dedicated funding for his own lab’s stem cell work.

“The Foundation’s funding support has been a massive boost for us. It will give us real momentum, help us publish our early results, and hopefully leverage the larger amounts of funding we will need to take our initial discoveries to the next level – including clinical trials.”

When not in the lab, Mark is seeing patients in his clinics with both skin cancer and vitiligo.

“I see the patients and their problems every week. This guides the science and experiments I do, and thus the type of projects we undertake in the lab.”

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