Dr Jessica Duarte

A quest for better melanoma outcomes

Jessica is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute in Victoria. She completed her PhD at the University of Cape Town in 2015.

On two separate occasions, Jessica’s GP and dermatologist identified suspicious moles on her skin, which they believed to be melanoma. Thankfully, testing eventually showed them to be benign.

‘Though I got good news in the end, the experience emphasised for me how many people in Australia don’t share my luck,’ says Jessica. ‘That, coupled with losing a much-loved aunt to cancer, was when my dedication to improving melanoma outcomes became truly personal.’

The Research

Jessica’s Cure Cancer-funded project involves an exciting new non-invasive technology she has developed to measure the extent of tumour recognition by the immune system using a drop of blood. With this method she hopes to predict if melanoma patients will respond to immunotherapy, a treatment aimed at boosting the immune system.

Effective immune engagement occurs when the immune system recognises and destroys a tumour cell, but tumours have developed ways of escaping immune attack, which is when they grow uncontrollably. Cancer-specific antibodies are a form of immune engagement that can be measured in the blood, and patients who have strong immune engagement respond better to immunotherapies. To make use of this ability, Jessica has developed a screening method that can detect antibodies against over 100 tumour markers.

‘This will allow us to detect with high sensitivity the depth and breadth of antibody responses against melanoma, and predict better treatment responses,’ she says.

Evaluating patients based on each individual’s immune engagement will help ensure they don’t unnecessarily undergo treatment that carries the risk of side effects. They can then have other therapies that may be beneficial, and which prevent the development of more tumours. ‘I hope this will lead to better results and survival rates, reducing health-care costs and the burden of disease. Given the widespread use of immunotherapy in other cancers, these benefits may be transferable to other types of tumours.’

The Importance of Funding

‘After completing their PhDs, researchers face a monumental task in establishing independent career paths, which can only happen if they secure early-career funding. Many young researchers fail to do so and as a result leave science,’ says Jessica. ‘I am so thankful to Cure Cancer and the tireless efforts and amazing support of fundraisers. This grant will truly launch my scientific career and help me investigate if my technology can predict therapeutic outcomes.’

‘Australia has the highest incidence of melanoma in the world, and it’s the most deadly form of skin cancer. Our patients and their families inspire me to make a difference to those affected. I’ll do all that I can to improve treatment outcomes and won’t rest until I succeed. Cancer patients should know they are not alone in their battle.’