Researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) with collaborators from the German Cancer Research Center and two other Israeli medical centers published an article in Nature Cell Biology Monday that could change the way skin cancer is treated.
The authors, led by Dr. Carmit Levy, the research leader of TAU’s Sackler School of Medicine, have established the mechanism by which melanoma, the most aggressive and deadly form of skin cancer, spreads to other organs. Along with establishing the machinery that allows melanoma to spread cancer throughout the body, the researchers also identified chemical substances that can halt the metastasizing process—and may prove to be powerful anti-cancer drug candidates.
In a statement for the university, Dr. Levy explained that “the threat of melanoma is not in the initial tumor that appears on the skin, but rather in its metastasi —in the tumor cells sent off to colonize in vital organs like the brain, lungs, liver and bones.”
The motivation behind the study, therefore, was to better understand the process by which melanoma passes through the most superficial layer of skin (the epidermis) and invades the living tissue (the dermis) to become a threat to other organ systems.
To metastasize, cancer cells must break off from the initial point of formation and impinge upon the blood or lymphatic system in order to form new, metastatic tumors, in other parts of the body. Dr. Levy and his colleagues discovered that melanoma spreads by sending out tiny vesicles, or capsules, containing molecules of genetic information in the form of microRNA. These microRNA then cause changes to the structure of the dermis, which enables it to receive and transport cancer cells.
Further, the structural changes to the dermis and the presence of microRNA-containing vesicles could serve as indicators of melanoma in its early stages. This finding is especially constructive because while the five-year survival rate once the disease metastasizes to distant organs is 17 percent, if the melanoma is detected early, patient survival rates can be as high as 98 percent.
After identifying the key morphological changes in the skin needed to facilitate cancer spread, Dr. Levy said “it then became clear to us that by blocking the vesicles, we might be able to stop the disease altogether.” The scientists also examined the possibility of preventing the structural changes from occurring, even if the vesicles were able to infiltrate the dermis.
The researchers found chemicals to successfully interrupt both stages in the lab, encouraging evidence that these substances could be used to create anti-metastatic melanoma drugs.
“Our study is an important step on the road to a full remedy for the deadliest skin cancer,” Dr. Levy said in the press release. “We hope that our findings will help turn melanoma into a non-threatening, easily curable disease.”
Melanoma accounts for less than 1 percent of skin cancers, but results in the majority of skin cancer deaths. The American Cancer Society estimates that over 76,000 new cases of invasive melanoma will be diagnosed in the United States in 2016 and that one person dies of melanoma every 52 minutes.
And remember, the best way to prevent melanoma is to stay out of the sun and always, always, wear sunscreen.