A Perth researcher is trying to develop a vaccine for melanoma amid concerns about rising skin cancer rates in teenagers and even children.
Jason Waithman, a University of WA research fellow based at the Telethon Kids Institute, says there is a worldwide surge in melanoma, which is now the most common cancer in young Australians aged 15 to 39.
"Australia probably has an epidemic right now just because we're not going to evolve darker skin overnight in a very sunny country," he said.
"While there's an epidemic worldwide, in Australia we have by far the worst incidence.
"If you break down the cancer stats for 15 to 19-year-olds, 20 to 24-year-olds and so on, melanoma is number one and what's really scary is that in adolescence it is three times more common than 10 years ago. The incidence is going up and we don't know why."
Dr Waithman knew of three melanoma cases treated recently at Princess Margaret Hospital, and in the US the skin cancer was especially showing up in young women.
"We particularly want to send out the right message to young parents because we know the disease starts young, when early sun exposure starts the process going," he said.
Dr Waithman is using a new approach to treat melanoma by trying to develop a vaccine that does not attack tumour cells directly but triggers a response in the immune system T-cells.
Skin cancer experts say though sun exposure is a significant risk for melanoma, other factors include a family history of it, fair skin that burns easily and a weakened immune system.
Cancer Council WA director of education and research Terry Slevin said there had been encouraging progress in making young people more sun aware and though skin cancer rates in Australia were still high, many were falling.
"Skin cancer efforts are starting to pay off but nonetheless there are still cases being identified and not all melanomas are the result of UV exposure," he said.