Marker spots the step from healthy skin to cancer

Researchers from the U.S., China and Australia have found an epigenetic marker (or rather the lack of one) that could tip off doctors to the shift from normal skin cells to melanoma, potentially allowing for better screening and earlier diagnosis and treatment. It could also give clues to the outcomes for the patients.

The National Institutes of Health cite melanoma as the most dangerous type of skin cancer and the leading cause of death from skin disease. While the chance of skin cancer is greater in older people, young people are increasingly developing the disease, especially those who have fair skin or who have been exposed to the sun frequently through work or leisure activities.

Using genome-wide mapping, the researchers found that methyl groups (5-hmC) normally found on the DNA in healthy pigment-producing skin cells and cells in benign moles were missing in melanoma cells, and this loss was a marker of malignant melanoma. This is known as an epigenetic change because it affects the DNA expression without changing the code itself.

"[This is] an exciting new connection between the loss of a specific chemical mark in the genome and the development of melanoma," said Anthony Carter of the NIH. "This work is a prime example of how basic research on mechanisms of epigenetic regulation can yield clinically significant insights that hold great promise for diagnosing and treating cancer."

Treating malignant melanoma cells with enzymes that trigger 5-hmC formation stopped cell growth, suggesting that as well as a diagnostic marker, this change could also be a potential drug target.

- read the press release
- see the abstract

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