New research is paving the way for a more effective treatment against one of New Zealand's deadliest cancers.
Around 350 New Zealanders die from melanoma every year and over 4000 people are diagnosed - figures marked the highest in the world per capita.
But by combining existing, already available treatments Professor Peter Shepherd of the Auckland University-based Maurice Wilkins Centre hopes to turn those numbers around.
In 2014, a breakthrough drug called Opdivo was approved for New Zealand use which meant no longer was melanoma untreatable.
Put simply, the drug aimed to activate the patients' own immune system to kill the melanoma.
"This was huge but unfortunately the drug only works for about half of melanoma patients, leaving a gap in the market for the remaining 50 per cent of patients."
Shepherd, who spoke at this week's Queenstown Medical Research conference, said there was a second-class drug that was not publicly-funded in New Zealand but was used widely overseas - called Vemurafenib.
Vemurafenib worked for the sub-set of melanoma, which meant the tumour had to have a specific mutation for it to work, which was only about 40 per cent of patients. Sadly, the drug only worked for a limited time before the tumours developed ways to resist the drugs.
In a bid to discover how to get over the resistance that developed, Shepherd experimented by adding a second drug into the mix.
With the support of the Cancer Society, Shepherd and his team have been able to use cells from more than 100 melanoma tumours donated by New Zealanders to identify what drives each type of tumour.
"We've done a lot of work using this very unique resource which has pointed us in one particular direction to use drugs that stop the growth of blood vessels," Shepherd said.
Like any organ in the body, a tumour needs to get blood into it so it can survive so it makes these hormones that create the growth of vessels into the tumour.
He said all of the research pointed to the idea that adding these drugs together with Vemurafenib could work better.
"That indeed turned out to be the case. We found that when you add these drugs that stop blood vessel formation the Vemurafenib works even better."
And that wasn't the only ground-breaking finding.
"What was even more surprising was that neither of these drugs alone works very well in the other 60 per cent of melanomas but the combination of the two together works incredibly well in essentially all melanomas."
Moving forward, Shepherd and his team have been granted funding from the Health Research Council for a clinical trial.
He said they still had to get drug companies to donate the drug but hoped the trial would be off the ground within the next year.
• New Zealand and Australia have the highest rates of melanoma in the world.
• Melanoma is the fourth most common cancer diagnosed in New Zealand.
• Over 4000 New Zealanders are diagnosed with either melanoma every year – the equivalent to around 13 people every day.
• Around 70 per cent of melanoma cases occur in people aged 50 years and older.
• Māori and Pacific people have a much lower chance of getting melanoma, but often have thicker (more serious) melanomas.
• About half of all melanomas are first found by the person themselves.
• Early identification of a melanoma can lead to earlier and more effective treatment.