Researchers at University College Dublin have identified biomarkers strongly associated with the survival of patients with skin cancer.

The discovery could help doctors trying to decide how to treat different forms of melanoma.

The research was carried out in collaboration with UCD spin-out firm OncoMark and the Spanish-based Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute.

It involved looking at the most life-threatening form of skin cancer, called cutaneous melanoma, for which there are few diagnostic tests available to help doctors figure out how advanced the illness is.

Instead the clinicians use basic diagnostic methods, like measuring the thickness of the tumour, when trying to figure out how far the cancer has developed.

The scientists produced maps of how the function of genes is altered by a natural chemical process known as methylation.

In particular they looked at three stages of the tumour development, from benign to malignant to metastatic melanoma.

The maps shine a spotlight on the process through which these cancer cells grow and spread as chromosomes change.

"They may provide clinicians with a powerful tool to stratify patients who have benign versus more aggressive tumour types and allow them to tailor treatment accordingly," said Professor William Gallagher, UCD Professor of Cancer Biology at the UCD Conway Institute and Chief Scientific Officer at OncoMark. 

"In this epigenomic melanoma study, we establish novel biomarkers to identify patients with good prognosis that do not necessarily need to undergo aggressive and expensive therapies," said Dr Jasper Wooters, first author of the study published in BMC Medicine.

"Importantly, some of these biomarkers can potentially be assessed non-invasively, using cell-free DNA in the serum of patients."