Myxoma virus is a decidedly nasty customer, particularly if you’re a rabbit. Or, it turns out, a human melanoma cell.

However, recent studies have shown the virus is not known to infect human cells, raising the prospect of conscripting it in the battle against skin cancer.

That said, not everyone is going to be happy having a virus injected into them in order to treat their melanoma, particularly as viruses are known to mutate in unpredictable ways.

As such, a team at RMIT has used an advanced new technique to synthesise a key peptide from the myxoma virus that is responsible for its cancer killing clout, and have found this peptide can do its dirty work without harming healthy cells.

The team, led by Dr Taghrid Istivan, used a new technology designed by fellow RMIT researchers, Professor Irena Cosic and Dr Elena Pirogova, to design the peptide.

This technology, called the resonant recognition model (RRM), is used to design therapeutic peptides from scratch. It uses complex computer modelling to analyse protein structure and function effectively based on looking at the resonant frequencies of the peptide.

This enables the researchers to predict which amino acids will contribute to the protein function, and then to design a new peptide with just the components required to give the desired function.

This process is also a darn sight easier than producing the virus protein in other ways.

“A virus protein is big, expensive to synthesise and has inherent risks when used in medical treatments, because all viruses can mutate,” said Dr Istivan. “By synthesising a small peptide that mimics the action of a protein, we can offer a stable, safe, targeted and cost-effective alternative.”

The researchers tested the synthetic peptide on melanoma cells and found it had a dose-dependent toxic effect, as expected. They also found that it didn’t harm human cells.

It is hoped the peptide can be developed into a treatment for melanoma, which has proven a challenging cancer to treat.

“Currently the only effective treatment for early stage melanoma is surgery to cut out the tumour and healthy skin surrounding the affected mole,” said Dr Istivan.

The next step is to begin conducting clinical trials to determine how effective the peptide is in vivo and whether it has any undesirable side effects or can consistently batter down melanoma without resistance emerging.

“With further work, including clinical trials, we hope our research could lead to the development of a cream to painlessly and efficiently treat early stage melanoma.”

The researchers will be presenting their results at the 40th Congress of the International Society of Oncology and Biomarkers, in October in Jerusalem, and have published on their synthetic peptide in the Journal of Biomedical Science.