Microscope image of blood vessels in skin
Melanoma is an aggressive form of skin cancer. The disease can be effectively treated if detected early but is dangerous once it spreads throughout the body.
Australia has one of the highest incidence rates of melanoma in the world, with the disease being the third most diagnosed cancer in the country. More than 1400 Australians die from the disease each year. Our research aims to develop new strategies for treating advanced cases of melanoma.

Melanoma research at WEHI

Our researchers are:

  • Investigating how specialised immune cells called natural killer cells prevent melanoma from spreading.
  • Exploring whether natural killer cells could be harnessed to fight melanoma.
  • Developing treatments that target the proteins keeping melanoma cells alive.
  • Studying how melanomas evolve and develop resistance to therapies.

What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that arises in skin cells called melanocytes.

Melanocytes sit in the top layer of skin, called the epidermis. They produce a pigment which gives skin its colour and helps protect against ultraviolet (UV) damage. When melanocytes group together in clusters, they form a non-cancerous mole.

Occasionally melanocytes begin to grow abnormally and form a melanoma. Melanoma usually occurs on parts of the body that are exposed to the sun, but rare cases occur in body parts that receive less sun exposure, such as the inside of the mouth.

Melanoma is a rare type of skin cancer, but it is the most deadly. Melanoma is particularly dangerous because it can invade deeper layers of skin and spread to other parts of the body like the lung, liver and brain.

Excluding less deadly types of skin cancer, melanoma is the third most common cancer diagnosed in Australian men and women.

Symptoms of melanoma

The first sign of melanoma is usually a change in an existing mole, or the appearance of a new mole. Melanomas vary greatly in how they look, but many show features such as:

  • Asymmetry
  • Irregular shape or border
  • Uneven colour
  • Increased size
  • Itching or bleeding
  • Raised surface

As not all melanomas show these classic features, it is important that a doctor checks any moles that change in shape or grow over a period of more than one month. Suspicious moles should be removed and examined by a pathologist to look for signs of melanoma.

Risk factors for developing melanoma

Melanoma is caused by genetic changes in melanocytes. These genetic changes are caused by UV radiation from the sun or from other sources such as solariums.

Factors that increase the risk of developing melanoma include:

  • Prolonged sun exposure, particularly during childhood.
  • Having a large number of moles, especially those with irregular shape.
  • Having fair or freckled skin, blue or green eyes and fair or red hair.
  • Having a previous case of melanoma.
  • Having a family history of skin cancer, especially melanoma.

How is melanoma treated?

If melanoma is detected early, it can usually be successfully removed by surgery. For this reason, survival from melanoma is relatively high, with 90 per cent of people alive five years after diagnosis.

Once melanoma has spread, however, the disease can be life-threatening.

Traditional chemotherapy drugs are generally not effective in treating melanoma, and until recently, there were few treatment options for advanced disease.

Several promising treatments have recently been developed for melanoma, including:

  • Targeted therapies that block specific proteins that drive melanoma growth.
  • Immunotherapies that activate the body’s own immune system to fight melanoma.

These new therapies have improved survival and reduced symptoms for many people diagnosed with advanced melanoma, however there are still many challenges.

Working towards improved outcomes

Drug resistance is a major problem for targeted therapies, with many people having a favourable initial response but then relapsing with resistant disease. Our researchers are using cutting-edge genome technology to investigate how melanomas evolve to become drug resistant. We are also developing new drugs targeting the pro-survival proteins that are often highly expressed in drug-resistant melanomas.

Our researchers are also exploring new forms of immunotherapy based on specialised immune cells called natural killer (NK) cells. NK cells patrol the body and kill damaged cells, including cancer cells and cells infected with viruses. Our researchers discovered that NK cells are essential to eliminate melanoma cells that have spread to the lungs. They are now investigating new treatments for melanoma that harness NK cells.

Support for people with melanoma

WEHI researchers are not able to provide specific medical advice to individuals. If you have melanoma or are supporting somebody with this disease, please contact the Cancer Council or consult your medical specialist.


Professor Melissa Davis

Portrait photo of Professor Melissa Davis
Joint Division Head

Professor Peter Gibbs

Peter Gibbs in his office
Joint Division Head

Professor Guillaume Lessene

Professor Guillaume Lessene in a laboratory
Laboratory Head; Leader, New Medicines and Advanced Technologies Theme

Professor Tony Papenfuss

Tony Papenfuss
Laboratory Head; Leader, Computational Biology Theme

Professor Andrew Roberts

Professor Andrew Roberts in the lab
Laboratory Head; Joint Leader, Cancer Research and Treatments Theme
Super Content: 
Research team group photo

Our bodies are constantly fighting off the development of cells that lead to tumours. Researchers have now discovered a protein ‘brake’ within Natural Killer cells that controls their ability to destroy their target tumour cells.

Group of seven researchers in front of a window

A new compound has been shown to block a protein essential for the growth of many cancers, including melanoma, blood, breast and lung cancers.

Male scientist sitting with a microscope

Researchers have discovered the mechanism that drives specialised immune cells that detect and kill cancer cells in the body, offering scientists a new way to develop potential drug targets and cancer treatments.

Three cancer researchers looking at a mobile device

Computational biology has enabled our researchers to develop a new method to identify melanoma patients with improved rates of survival.