A scientific breakthrough may one day stop melanoma from spreading to other vital organs. (Photo: Getty Images)
Researchers from Tel Aviv University have determined that a melanoma tumor sends out vesicles, small structures enclosed by a membrane, that contain molecules that cause changes in the dermis — the inner layer of the skin — and allow the cancer to spread to other vital organs, including the brain, lungs, liver, and bones. Understanding this process means that investigators can finally begin to stop the cancer before it reaches the metastatic stage.
For years, scientists have understood that melanoma forms in the epidermis, the outer layer of the skin. At this stage, the cancer is unable to enter the bloodstream because it doesn’t have access to blood vessels. Yet it somehow can find a way to break the barrier to connect with the numerous blood vessels running through the dermis.
“We found that even before the cancer itself invades the dermis, it sends out tiny vesicles containing molecules of microRNA,” said lead study author Carmit Levy, Ph.D., of the department of human molecular genetics and biochemistry at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine, in a press release. “These induce the morphological changes in the dermis in preparation for receiving and transporting the cancer cells. It then became clear to us that by blocking the vesicles, we might be able to stop the disease altogether.”
According to statistics from the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, and the rates of melanoma — which accounts for just 1 percent of skin cancers — have been rising in the last 30 years. The group estimates that 76,380 new melanomas will be diagnosed this year, while 10,130 people are expected to die of the disease.
“Melanoma is one of those terrible cancers that metastasizes very, very quickly, Homayoon Sanati, M.D., medical oncologist at MemorialCare Breast Center at Long Beach Memorial and Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells Yahoo Beauty. “The metastasis happens early on, so doctors will think they have taken the cancer out, but then the melanoma pops up in other areas, like the brain, a year or more later. Former President Jimmy Carter is an example of that.”
He further explains that a “hot topic” for all cancers is the mechanism for metastasis.
“When you understand the mechanism of something and if you have a way to destruct this mechanism, that may reduce the risk of metastasis — and that’s the key finding from this study,” continues Sanati. “It seems they know the two compound chemicals that disrupt the process, and the significant of this means this mechanism can be targeted for treatment.”
Sanati adds that over the last five years, new medications have been developed to attack certain proteins in order to prevent the growth of melanoma. “Jimmy Carter is one of the patients who’s had a very good response,” he says. “But knowing these new targets may expand that horizon.”
“Our study is an important step on the road to a full remedy for the deadliest skin cancer,” Levy concluded in the press release. “We hope that our findings will help turn melanoma into a nonthreatening, easily curable disease.”