There’s no two ways about it, melanoma kills, especially here in Australia.

We have one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world, and melanoma is often referred to as ‘Australia’s national cancer’.

Around 16,000 Australians are diagnosed with this deadliest form of skin cancer every year.

That means one person is told they have melanoma every 30 minutes.

But there’s been a recent “miracle” breakthrough in immunotherapy drug that could save the lives of millions of people with advanced melanoma globally.

The new drug showed a significant improvement in patients when used with with a common melanoma treatment, the PD-1 inhibitor.

The clinical trial study, sponsored by US-based Bristol-Myers Squib and which was conducted here in Australia, investigated a drug called LAG-3 inhibitor, which targets a protein in the immune cells and enhances the body’s fighting response to the tumours.

The study found that when the two drugs were combined, the progression of the skin cancer in 50 per cent of patients had stopped.

On the ASX, one company which is a pure play LAG-3 cancer immunotherapy stock is Immutep (ASX:IMM).

LAG-3 itself was discovered in 1990 by Immutep’s own Chief Scientific and Chief Medical Officer, Professor Frederic Triebel.

Immutep has now become a global leader in LAG-3 products with more LAG-3-related intellectual property and more product candidates in clinical development than any other company.

Since the Bristol-Myers Squibb study results were announced, LAG-3 has received much attention.

This has led Immutep to embark on a collaboration study with the University of Cardiff to advance the development of a new generation of small molecule anti-LAG-3 therapies.

The aim of the project is to make an oral treatment available to cancer patients and at a lower cost compared with the current anti-LAG-3 antibodies being developed by several companies.

ASX small cap melanoma fighters

There are other stocks on the ASX that are involved, one way or another, in the development of melanoma drugs.

Race Oncology (ASX:RAC) has recently initiated a collaborative preclinical research program with The University of Newcastle to explore the use of Bisantrene as a novel treatment for melanoma.

Race is pursuing Bisantrene therapies targeted at inhibiting FTO (Fat Mass and Obesity) in both melanoma and clear cell renal cell carcinoma.

Clinuvel (ASX:CUV) is also focusing on skin diseases. It’s currently progressing on the study of Sceness, to treat the xeroderma pigmentosum disease. The aim of the study is to confirm the drug’s ability to regenerate DNA of skin exposed to UV damage.

The company said that if left unrepaired, the chemical changes to DNA may replicate as mutations, leading to irreversible damage and further progress to skin cancer, including melanoma.

Chimeric Therapeutics (ASX:CHM) is currently expanding the its chlorotoxin CAR T cell therapy from glioblastoma to other diseases including melanoma.

Chlorotoxin, sourced from scorpion venom, is used to bind and direct T cells to target glioblastoma, and is currently undergoing a phase 1 clinical trial.