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Skin cancer – beauty is skin deep

As the summer holiday season comes to an end, we all want to return to school or work with a ‘healthy summer glow,’ but is it really worth the risk of skin cancer?  Here at Worldwide Cancer Research we are funding investigations that deal with the aftermath of too many hours in the sun and the painful sun burn we all know too well.

The sun’s been shining (sometimes), and when that happens, everyone is always keen to get outside and soak up the rays.  Or you gave up waiting for summer to arrive and jetted off on holiday somewhere hot.  Either way, the odds are you and your family are returning to work and school that little bit more bronzed than when you emerged from winter.  But is there really such a thing as a ‘healthy tan,' and is it really worth increasing our risk of skin cancer for a few weeks of looking tanned?

Like most cancers, skin cancer is more common with increasing age, but rates for malignant melanoma (the most dangerous type of skin cancer) are disproportionately high in younger people.  More than one third of all cases occur in people under 55. And it is the second most common cancer in adults aged 15-34.

The good news is that most malignant melanoma cases are diagnosed at an early stage, when treatment is much more likely to be successful.  However, in 2012, around 55,500 people were estimated to have died from the disease, with around 6 people dying every day in the UK.  As well as each of us doing all we can to avoid the sunburnt look, more melanoma research needs to be done.

Jekyll and Hyde cells

Dr Adam Hurlstone at the University of Manchester is one of the latest  scientists funded by Worldwide Cancer Research. His project will be underway shortly.  He is investigating the role played by the immune system in aiding, rather than killing, cancer cells. These immune cells he calls Jekyll and Hyde cells.

“Macrophages are a multi-tasking type of immune cell” he tells us, “they kill infectious bugs, help heal wounds, and we know they can kill cancer cells when they are working normally.  But here’s the curious thing; in some cancers, instead of killing cancer cells they cause inflammation around the tumour that actually helps the tumour grow in a Jekyll and Hyde typed scenario.  We want to investigate how macrophages orchestrate inflammation in melanoma to aid the tumour and see if we can re-ignite their tumour killing ability instead”

The beautiful skin cancer image above is a microscope image produced by Helen Young. She works in Dr Hurlstone’s lab and is very excited to be able to continue her work for a further three years thanks to the new Worldwide Cancer Research grant.  She described the photograph “The image shows human melanoma cells in green, which have been mixed with macrophages, stained blue, that we treated to activate their cancer-killing abilities.  The red colour is a marker of dead melanoma cells which are being eaten by the blue macrophage - this is why you can see green and red inside the blue macrophages.”  This is proof that the principle works in cells in a lab. Now the task is to see if it works in actual tumours, using zebrafish.

Personalised treatments for melanoma

Dr Manel Esteller Badosa at the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL), Barcelona, Spain is developing personalised treatments for skin cancer.  Treatments are available, but tumours inevitably become drug resistant and patients relapse.  Dr Esteller wants to improve the situation by making melanoma treatments more 'personalised', and attuned to a patient's specific cancer profile.

He told us “I am really excited because my work can represent another significant step in the personalised treatment of melanoma, that is, giving the right drug to the right patient at the right time.”

Distress beacon

Many Worldwide Cancer Research grants have increased our understanding of melanoma. For example, Dr Cathy Tournier recently located a ‘distress beacon’ damaged skin cells use to attract immune cells – which can lead to cancer. Dr Tournier and her team at the University of Manchester showed in mice that damaged skin cells use the ERK5 molecule to draw in immune cells in times of trouble. “We think it’s quite clear our work shows the skin cells are using ERK5 to call to the immune cells." She told us excitedly.

If this beacon could be switched off or blocked, it could represent a potentially new way to treat cancer. “There’s a long way to go, but we think that anti-ERK5 therapy combined with chemotherapy might turn out to be an effective way to hit not just skin cancer, but maybe many different types of cancer,” said Dr Tournier. You can read more about this discovery in a previous blog post.  Dr Tournier has also recently been awarded a new grant to further investigate whether ERK5 is a potential drug target for melanoma.

It is great to see that progress is being made, but as this post shows, more research is still needed, and Worldwide Cancer Research are proud to be playing a part.

Further information

Photo credit: Helen Young.

Scientific photo description: Human melanoma cells (previously isolated from a patient), labelled green, are cultured (grown) with human macrophages (isolated from donor blood samples).  The macrophages are not coloured but the blue stain (DAPI) labels all cells, so the cells that aren't green are macrophages.  There is one macrophage in the centre surrounded by melanoma cells.  These macrophages have been stimulated to adopt tumour-destructive behaviour.  The red label shows apoptosis (cell death).  As you can see the macrophage has engulfed ('eaten') part of the green melanoma cell that is dead (shown by the fragments of red and green inside the macrophage).



Science Communication Manager at Worldwide Cancer Research

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