Preclinical breakthrough: Scientists beat rare skin cancer tumors

Merkel cell carcinoma isn't the most common form of cancer. As the National Cancer Institute notes, only 1 person in 227,000 develops it in the United States each year. But the cancer affects older adults, people with weakened immune systems, and patients who are in the sun too much, and it can be very deadly, growing quickly and metastasizing early.

That's what makes a new finding by a husband and wife team of scientists (Patrick Moore and Yuan Chang) at the University of Pittsburgh all the more noteworthy. As Essential Public Radio reports in a story posted online, the pair tested an experimental drug called YM155 in lab mice infested with the rare cancer, and found that the drug beat back tumor growth in lab mice without being toxic. Results of the targeted treatment were so promising, they say, that they're planning human clinical trials later this year.

The treatment connects to how Merkel cell carcinoma starts, with a skin virus that is usually harmless but becomes deadly once it mutates, a phenomenon scientists believe is triggered by factors such as too much sun. The virus then uses its mutated DNA to take over human cells, fortify and multiply, the story explains. To counter this, researchers found, YM155 prevented the Merkel cell virus from taking hold and multiplying in host cells, beating back subsequent tumor growth.

- see the Essential Public Radio story
- read more from the National Cancer Institute