Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Australian Skin Cancer Rates Drop

Rates of non-melanoma skin cancer are dropping among younger Australians, according to a study of Medicare data from 2000–10 published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

While the incidence of non-melanoma skin cancer continued to increase markedly in older Australians during that period, the data showed the first recorded drop – 1.5% per year, and more than 10% over the decade – in Australians aged under 45. In that same period, the number of younger Australians who had skin checks or biopsies increased.

“We’ve shown that younger people are more aware of skin cancer, are having more checks for skin cancer, and are recording fewer cases of skin cancer,” said Professor David Whiteman of the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute.

“Finally, the sunsafe message is having results. The generation exposed to the message of ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ since childhood is the first to see the real benefits of the campaign. We always knew it would take that long, because skin cancers form about 30 years after sun exposure.”

The figures showed an annual drop of 4% per year in Australians aged 5–24, 2% in those aged 25–34, and 1.5% in Australians under 45. However, skin cancer rates were still on the rise among older Australians.

A separate study published in Nature Genetics has identified a specific gene fault that causes a hereditary form of melanoma. The mutation inactivates the POT1 gene, which would otherwise protect the ends of chromosomes from damage. “This finding significantly increases our understanding of why some families have a high incidence of melanoma,” said Professor Nick Hayward of QIMR Berghofer’s Oncogenomics Laboratory.

Every year in Australia, 11,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma. About 2% of them have a strong family history of the disease.

Scientists have previously identified the genetic mutations responsible for about 40% of all familial cases of melanoma. This finding accounts for a further 3% of cases.

“This gene has also previously been identified as potential drug target,” Hayward said, “so in future early detection may mean better treatment options”.