Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN; March 15, 2023

Detecting melanoma early, when it is easier to treat, remains a “paramount goal,” but guidelines surrounding optimal melanoma screening practices and diagnostic evaluations need greater clarity, according to the authors of a new consensus statement.  That is why a group of expert panelists evaluated the existing evidence and a range of clinical scenarios to help clarify the optimal strategies for early detection and assessment of cutaneous melanoma.

Overall, the panelists agreed that a risk-stratified approach is likely the most appropriate strategy for melanoma screening and follow-up, and supported the use of visual and dermoscopic examination. However, the panelists did not reach consensus on the role for gene expression profile (GEP) testing in clinical decision-making, citing the need for these assays to be validated in large randomized clinical trials. In an accompanying editorial, two experts highlighted the importance of carefully evaluating the role of diagnostics tests. “Diagnostic tests such as GEP must face critical scrutiny; if not, there are immediate concerns for patient care such as the patient being erroneously informed that they do not have cancer or told that they do have cancer when they do not,” write Alan C. Geller, MPH, RN, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, and Marvin A Weinstock, MD, PhD, from Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.

The consensus statement was published online today in JAMA Dermatology.

The Need for Guidance

Although focusing melanoma screening on higher-risk populations may be cost-effective compared with population-based screening, the major guidelines lack consistent guidance to support a risk-stratified approach to skin cancer screening and best practices on diagnosing cutaneous melanoma.

In the prebiopsy setting, the appropriate use of diagnostic tools for evaluating the need for biopsy remain poorly defined and, in the post-biopsy setting, questions remain concerning the diagnostic accuracy of molecular techniques, diagnostic GEP testing, next-generation sequencing, and immunohistochemical assessment for various markers of melanoma.

To provide consensus recommendations on optimal screening practices, prebiopsy and post biopsy diagnostics, and prognostic assessment of cutaneous melanoma, a group of 42 panelists voted on hypothetical scenarios via an emailed survey. The panel then came together for a consensus conference, which included 51 experts who discussed their approach to the various clinical case scenarios. Most attendees (45 of the 51) answered a follow-up survey for their final recommendations.

The panelists reached a consensus, with 70% agreement, to support a risk-stratified approach to melanoma screening in clinical settings and public screening events. The experts agreed that higher-risk individuals (those with a relative risk [RR] of 5 or greater) could be appropriately screened by a general dermatologist or pigmented lesion evaluation. Higher-risk individuals included those with severe skin damage from the sun, systemic immunosuppression, or a personal history of nonmelanoma or melanoma skin cancer.

Panelists agreed that those at general or lower risk (RR < 2) could be screened by a primary care provider or through regular self- or partner examinations whereas those at moderate risk could be screened by their primary care clinician or general dermatologist. The experts observed “a shift in acceptance” of primary care physicians screening the general population, and an acknowledgement of the importance of self- and partner examinations as screening adjuncts for all populations.

In the prebiopsy setting, panelists reached consensus that visual and dermoscopic examination was appropriate for evaluating patients with “no new, changing, or unusual skin lesions or with a new lesion that is not visually concerning.”

The panelists also reached consensus that lesions deemed clinically suspicious for cancer or showing features of cancer on reflectance confocal microscopy should be biopsied. Although most respondents (86%) did not currently use epidermal tape stripping routinely, they agreed that, in a hypothetical situation where epidermal tape stripping was used, that lesions positive for PRAME or LINC should be biopsied.

In the postbiopsy setting, views on the use of GEP scores varied. Although panelists agreed that a low-risk prognostic GEP score should not outweigh concerning histologic features when patients are selected to undergo sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB), they did not reach consensus for imaging recommendations in the setting of a high-risk prognostic GEP score and low-risk histology and/or negative nodal status.

“The panelists await future, well-designed prospective studies to determine if use of these and newer technologies improves the care of patients with melanoma,” the panelists write.

In the editorial, Geller and Weinstock highlighted concerns about the cost and potential access issues associated with these newer technologies, given that the current cost of GEP testing exceeds $7000.

The editorialists also emphasize that “going forward, the field should be advanced by tackling one of the more pressing, common, potentially morbid, and costly procedures — the prognostic use of sentinel lymph node biopsy.” Of critical importance is “whether GEP can reduce morbidity and cost by safely reducing the number of SLNBs performed,” Geller and Weinstock write.

The funding for the administration and facilitation of the consensus development conference and the development of the manuscript was provided by Dermtech Inc., in an unrestricted award overseen by the Melanoma Research Foundation and managed and executed at UPMC by the principal investigator (Dr John Kirkwood). Several of the co-authors have disclosed relationships with industry. The full list can be found with the original article. Geller is a contributor to UptoDate for which he receives royalties. Weinstock receives consulting fees from AbbVie.

JAMA Dermatology. Published online March 15, 2023.

Roxanne Nelson is a registered nurse and an award-winning medical writer who has written for many major news outlets and is a regular contributor to Medscape.