Australian researchers say an experimental vaccine is extending the lives of patients with advanced melanoma and could be a useful new treatment for the disease, which kills about 1500 Australians a year.

Researchers from the University of Adelaide said a small study of a vaccine to treat advanced melanoma in 54 people over the last decade showed 15 per cent survived beyond five years. About 30 per cent survived more than two years and one person is still alive a decade after his treatment began.

One of the authors, Associate Professor of Surgery Brendan Coventry, said the results were "remarkable compared with other current treatments" for people with stage three and four cancer. Additionally, he said it had not been associated with toxic side-effects.

But one of Australia's leading experts on melanoma at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and an Associate Professor of Medicine at Melbourne University, Grant McArthur, said more advanced clinical trials of other treatments in thousands of people with advanced melanoma were showing superior results. For example, he said studies had already showed about 20 per cent of people taking the drug Yervoy survived beyond five years.

Furthermore, he said the vaccine study was small, involved patients with easier-to-treat disease than other studies, and lacked a control group to compare the results to other people having standard treatments.

"I don't think this is a treatment that is likely to change the way we treat melanoma," he said.

The vaccine study was published online in the Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer.

It said the authors had been involved in the development of the vaccine with a patent held by their various institutions. The study said the vaccine, known as vaccinia melanoma cell lysate (VMCL), was given regularly to 54 South Australian patients with advanced, inoperable melanoma over a 10-year period.

In a statement about the study, Associate Professor Coventry said in one case, the vaccine led to a rapid decrease in the number and size of tumours on a patient's leg, which resulted in "substantial improvements in her ability to walk and care for herself within months of the first treatment".

Associate Professor Coventry said although more research was now required, repeated doses of the vaccination could repeatedly "boost" or "reset" patients' immune responses, leading to improved outcomes.

"This represents a major step forward in cancer control – it is proving to be a clinically effective technique," he said. "However, more research is now needed to work out how to optimise this treatment. For example, we believe that by better understanding how to synchronise the vaccination with the body's own natural immune response, we might be able to lead to even longer survival rates for patients."

But Professor McArthur said he thought it was unlikely that the vaccine would become a widely available treatment soon because it was being usurped by other promising new immunotherapy drugs.

"In the future, we may look at combining things and it may come up again, but at this point in time there is not enough positive data that will accelerate this going to the next stage," he said.