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A blood test can detect signs of a telltale enzyme that may indicate that a lethal form of skin cancer is likely to spread rapidly, according to research released Tuesday.

The blood test can detect the genetic material that controls production of the enzyme tyrosinase, which is believed to be a marker for melanoma cells. The enzyme is also thought to be a predictor of rapid disease progression.Dr. Uta Kunter of the University Medical Center in Hannover, Germany, the lead author of the article appearing in the May 1 edition of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, took blood samples from 64 melanoma patients and five healthy ones for a control.

They established that there was no tyrosinase RNA in the blood of the five control patients or the 16 patients with localized melanoma, which had been caught early and did not spread.

Among the 48 patients with metastatic, or spreading, disease, the 27 who had achieved complete remission were free of the genetic marker for the enzyme. But nine of the 21 patients with progressing disease tested positive.

Kunter and his colleagues reported that such a test might be a good diagnostic tool for determining a patient's prognosis, although they said more work must be done to refine and study the procedure before it can be widely used in the clinic.

In an accompanying editorial in the journal, Dr. Antonio Buzaid and Dr. Charles Balch of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center noted the test requires further research.