A simple blood test could be used to identify patients whose skin cancer has spread, according to a presentation at the National Cancer Research Institute conference.
Melanoma is particularly difficult to detect and treat once it spreads.
Dundee University researchers say that measuring levels of a gene called TFP12 in DNA in the blood could be key.
Cancer Research UK said the findings could lead to faster diagnoses and new treatments.
Dr Tim Crook, study author and consultant medical oncologist at the University of Dundee, said detecting if melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, had started to spread was challenging.
‘Landscape of our DNA’
“By using a blood test, we have the basis of a simple and accurate way of discovering how advanced the disease is, as well as an early warning sign of whether it has started to spread.
“This would give doctors and patients important information much sooner than is possible at the moment.
“There’s increasing evidence that the latest treatments are more effective in these early stages and, if we can identify patients whose cancer has only just started to spread, this would significantly improve the chances of beating the disease,” Dr Crook said.
Prof Charlotte Proby, a dermatologist based at the University of Dundee, said: “Using blood tests to assess the landscape of our DNA is a simple way to learn more about what’s going on under the skin.
“The switching on and off of certain genes seems to affect when, where and why the melanoma spreads.”
Prof Proby said the next step was to develop a panel of similar biomarkers that would help to detect those patients needing extra treatment to fight their melanoma.
More than eight in 10 people now survive melanoma for at least 10 years, but experts say there is still more to be done for patients whose cancer has spread to other organs.
Dr Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK and chair of the NCRI, said the research, revealed at the conference in Liverpool, could be important.
“This work could lead to quicker diagnosis and potentially new treatments, giving patients and doctors an even better chance of beating the disease,” he said.
The same research team identified another potential biomarker, called NT5E, which appears to be linked to spread of aggressive melanoma.
The researchers say it could be a possible target for developing new treatments to tackle melanoma, particularly for cancers that have spread to the brain, lungs and other organs.