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04-08-2011 | Oncology | Article

Gene offers clue to skin cancer spread


Free abstract

MedWire News: An international team of scientists has discovered a way of predicting which skin cancers are most likely to spread to distant parts of the body, and are thus most likely to be lethal.

The team suggests that people with skin cancer containing a certain gene variant should be offered every available treatment, including surgery to remove the tumor; by contrast, people without this gene variant may be able to avoid surgery without undue risk.

The cutting-edge research was undertaken by scientists in the USA and Portugal and was led by Lynda Chin (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Massachusetts). The scientists wanted to investigate the possibility of predicting, at a very early stage, whether or not skin cancer will spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body.

"Early-stage melanomas [a type of skin cancer] are often cured by surgical removal, but in about 10 percent of patients who undergo surgery and are considered cancer-free, the disease recurs in metastatic form and becomes fatal," explained Chin in a press release accompanying the study.

"The goal of this study was to see if we could find genetic events within the tumor cells that indicate which patients are at high risk for metastasis."

For their study, the researchers used genetic engineering to develop mice that were prone to developing melanoma. They then looked for particular genetic variations in mice with cancers that subsequently spread.

The researchers found 11 such variations, which they christened "driver genes" to reflect the notion that they "drive" the spread of cancer. They then tested these 11 genes in skin cancer cells from humans, finding that six were also "driver genes" in people.

Finally, the team focused on one of the six human driver genes known as APC5. They found that human skin tumors containing a certain form of APC5 were markedly more likely to spread than those with the "normal" form of APC5.

This suggests that APC5 could be a useful "biomarker," say the researchers, for determining the likelihood that a tumor will spread, even when the tumor has only just begun to grow.

APC5 could also represent an interesting new target for the treatment of skin cancer, Chin added.

MedWire ( is an independent clinical news service provided by Springer Healthcare Limited. © Springer Healthcare Ltd; 2011

By Joanna Lyford