By Helen Ford, Health Correspondent

Scientists at Newcastle University say they have developed a pioneering test which could have a major impact on people diagnosed with a type of skin cancer.

An estimated 17,000 people are diagnosed every year in the UK with melanoma, which can be life threatening.

The North East researchers say their test - for patients with the earliest stages of the condition - can reliably predict whether their tumour is likely to spread to other parts of the body, or return after it is removed.

The scientists have tested tumour samples from hundreds of patients and say the key lies in the presence of two proteins in the epidermis - or uppermost layer of skin - close to the growth.

If the proteins remain, the team says the tumour can be considered low risk. An absence of proteins indicates a higher risk tumour.

The dark brown line on the skin's surface indicates the presence of protein - and therefore a low risk melanoma Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees
In the skin above this tumour, the protein (indicated by the brown line) has disappeared so it is considered higher risk Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

The scientists say the test brings several benefits to people whose tumours have been removed.

If someone is low risk maybe we don't need to see them as often as we do currently in clinic. Equally if somebody's higher risk we can perhaps offer different tests to investigate them further and follow them up more closely in future. But also from the patients' point of view, apart from the physical health problems with the tumours there's a lot of psychological problems and being able to more surely reassure somebody .. puts patients' minds at ease.

Dr Rob Ellis, Newcastle University
Pam is reunited with Dr Rob Ellis following her treatment Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

ITV Tyne Tees presenter Pam Royle was diagnosed with a melanoma three years ago. Her tumour was successfully removed. During her treatment, Pam took part in the Newcastle University research.

It was really reassuring because up until that point my mind had been an absolute whirl. Once I was told I was low risk I was able to put that in the back of my mind and refocus, and so could my family. It doesn't mean you won't have follow-ups, because you will, but you're not constantly having to think about medical appointments and you can just get on with life.

Pam Royle, ITV Tyne Tees presenter

According to the NHS, melanomas are thought to be triggered by the sun's ultraviolet light though it says some may be caused by exposure to sun beds. Read more about melanoma and what to look out for here

So far the Newcastle team have studied hundreds of tumour samples and say the test is proving extremely reliable. Even so, more results are needed before it can be made widely available and the researchers are looking at samples from Spain, Australia and the United States.

While the team is stressing the potential benefits to patients, they also say the test could save money for the NHS, with low risk patients requiring fewer follow-up appointments after their melanoma is removed.

The scientists hope to acquire the necessary approvals, so the test can be available to patients within a couple of years.