Swiss researchers have identified a gene crucial to the development of melanoma, one of the most feared and aggressive cancers in the world. Their discovery gives new hope to those at elevated risk for this type of cancer and those who have already had a brush with it, as I have.
Scientists at the University of Zurich teamed with dermatologists and pathologists. They challenged a traditional theory that a tumor is made up of many equal cells that can multiply as cancer, according to Medical News Today. Any or all of them can help the tumor grow, according to this theory.
Most recent speculation, however, suggests that a tumor is made up of both malignant stem cells and other cells that are less aggressive. The cancer stem cells divide and turn into other tumor cells, causing the tumor to grow. The researchers sought to figure out whether the factors that play necessary roles in normal stem cells are also important for cancer stem cells.
Melanoma is a skin cancer that arises in cells called melanocytes. The American Cancer Society explains that these cells exist in the epidermis, the top layer of skin, and produce the brown pigment known as melanin. This pigment gives the skin a brown or tan color and protects its deepest layers from some types of sun damage.
The statistics for this form of cancer are sobering. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 44,250 men and 32,000 women -- 76,250 people in the United States -- will be diagnosed with melanoma of the skin in 2012. An estimated 9,180 of them will die of the disease.
Several years ago, I was shocked when a dermatologist told me that a growth removed from my leg was just a few days away from turning into melanoma. The melanocytes in the specimen looked very angry under the microscope. Despite a lifetime of avoiding the sun, I couldn't deny that I had several of the risk factors outlined by the Mayo Clinic. I have very fair skin, naturally blonde hair, and green eyes. I also have intentionally lowered immunity courtesy of a medication I've taken for decades.
In biopsies taken from patients with melanoma, the University of Zurich research team found a gene that actually controls the body's stem cell functioning. In order for stem cells to survive, they must have this Sox10 gene. While studying mice, the scientists discovered that suppressing Sox10 completely inhibited the development as well as the spread of cancer.
Current methods of treating this type of skin cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, biologic drugs, and targeted therapies. As a result of their discovery of a gene crucial to the development of melanoma, the Swiss team believes that it's possible to effectively treat a human tumor by launching an attack on its stem cells.
Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She has a special interest in diseases and other conditions that affect the quality of life.