Skin cancer is becoming more common both in Minnesota and the United States. Part of the reason for the increase is because we’re getting better at monitoring skin growths and seeking treatment if something is concerning, but ultraviolet light continues to lead to the development of new skin cancers each and every day. Because of this, researchers decided to take a closer look at the science of why skin cells turn against the body in an effort to learn more and potentially find new solutions.
The most recent efforts have been focused on melanomas. This type of skin cancer is rare and deadly. Although it only makes up about one percent of all skin cancers, it is responsible for the most skin cancer-related deaths each year. They occur in the skin’s pigment cells, which are called melanocytes.
Melanomas are most common on the chest and backs of men and on the legs of women, and statistics suggest nearly 90,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma this year. The data also suggests nearly 10,000 individuals will die as a result of their melanoma growth.
Researchers have recently made a concentrated effort to better understand what causes a melanoma to develop. They’ve uncovered that when melanocyte stem cells accumulate a certain number of genetic mutations, they become cancer-causing cells. When UV rays hit these areas of skin, it can result in the formation of a tumor.
“If you had mutations that were sufficient for melanoma, everything would be fine until you went out and got a sunburn, said Professor Andrew White, an assistant professor of biomedical sciences at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, who led the study. “The stimuli that would normally just give you a tanning response could, in fact, start a melanoma instead.”
By learning about these cell-level mutations, researchers are confident that they may be able to find new ways to prevent cancer cells from developing. They put this theory to the test in mice. After identifying a gene that can negatively affect melanin release when exposed to UV rays, researchers chemically engineered a group of rats that had the gene deleted. Both the modified rats and a group of control rats were given a dose of UV radiation to stimulate a “tanning response.”
Researchers found that mice with the stem cell mutations and the gene in question developed melanomas, while mice with the stem cell mutations and deleted gene did not.
“We have an actual mechanism, with [the gene]. That can be explored in the future and could be a way we can prevent melanomas from happening,” said White.
Obviously we need more research to learn how to best control the stem cell mutations and the gene expression, but it looks like an avenue worth exploring. Skin cancer, especially melanomas can be extremely deadly, so we need to focus on prevention and early detection. If you have noticed a discolored mole or a new growth on your skin, head into Dr. Koeplin’s office today for a consultation. The earlier it is detected and a care plan is developed, the better chance you’ll have of successfully and fully treating the issue. Contact Dr. Koeplin’s office for more information.