Cancer Research: Uncovering the secret of melanoma

March 30, 2004

Brussels, 29 Mar 2004

The most deadly of all cancers could all boil down to a fault in the way cells signal each other, a team of European scientists now believe.

Although it is too early to talk about cures for melanoma, recent discoveries by a team of French and British researchers from the Marie Curie Research Institute (MCRI) provide hope of one day stemming this deadly form of skin cancer. Reporting in the scientific journal Molecular and Cellular Biology, they found that 90% of malignant melanoma cells produce abnormally high levels of a protein called BRN-2.

In the short term, this discovery could help oncologists and researchers distinguish between melanomas and the other forms of skin discolorations, such as moles and sunspots. An important symbol of cross-border collaboration between the Institut Curie in Paris and London's Institute of Cancer Research, the team found that malignant melanoma cells contain over 20 times more of the protein than normal pigment cells. They also showed that BRN-2 is required for melanoma cells to keep on dividing.

Lead researcher, Colin Goding, expressed delight at the response to this work, which was supported by the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR), adding that his team is "beginning to investigate the important implications of BRN-2 for diagnosis and treatment of malignant melanoma."

Important in the sense that every year, between two and three million non-melanoma skin cancers – over 130 000 malignant cases – occur globally. Changing lifestyles and sun-seeking activities are being blamed for much of this increase in skin cancers. Regular exposure to harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation and sunburn during childhood appear to set the stage for high rates of melanoma later in life, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Early detection is key

Reportedly, depletion of the ozone layer, which provides a protective filter against UV radiation, further aggravates the problem. Other chronic skin changes due to UV radiation include injuries to skin cells, blood vessels and fibrous tissue, better known as skin ageing.

People with lighter skin colouring are most prone to melanoma, a process that begins in melanocytes – cells which make the skin pigment called melanin. The most common skin cancers, however, are basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinoma. Melanoma accounts for a small percentage of all skin cancer cases but causes most skin cancer-related deaths. The good news is, melanoma is often curable if detected and treated in its early stages.

In the European Union, cancer strikes one in three individuals before their 75th birthday, and is responsible for one in every four deaths. "The whole subject of cancer research requires a European approach," Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin said in a prepared statement to delegates meeting in 2001 to discuss future cancer research directions in Europe. "[A] large, co-operative effort is needed to ensure that every European citizen will rapidly profit from the revolution of knowledge in cancer management."

This event kick started European efforts to improve cancer surveillance and trend monitoring, to set up trans-border research co-operation in this area, and to ensure that discoveries are transferred quickly into new treatments and advances in public health. The EU's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) for research also sets aside over €1.15 billion for life science research aimed at combating major diseases like cancer.

Yesterday, an awareness campaign run by the Aventis Foundation and leading cancer leagues in Europe, the 'Train Against Cancer', was officially launched at Brussels Midi station (BE). The train will tour Europe stopping in major cities in France and Germany later this month (for details

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