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Skin Cancer Gene Discovered

Malignant Melanoma Finding Could Lead to Better Treatments
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WebMD Health News

April 21, 2003 -- The gene for malignant melanoma -- the most aggressive, deadly form of skin cancer -- has been identified. The finding provides "compelling evidence" that could lead to better treatments, says the study author.

The biggest problem in treating malignant melanoma has been the difficulty in targeting tumor cells, explains lead researcher Suzie Chen, PhD, with the National Human Genome Research Institute and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, in a news release.

Her paper appears in the latest issue of Nature Genetics.

Malignant melanoma may appear in parts of the body that never see the sun, then spread and become lethal. This type of skin cancer is generally not responsive to chemotherapy.

"After many years of work, we identified a gene that was involved in these skin abnormalities and went on to prove that it indeed causes melanoma" -- in mice, that is, says Chen.

She also says that the gene was found in human melanoma cells, yet it was not found in moles, birthmarks, or other benign skin conditions.

"With our understanding of at least one genetic factor in [malignant] melanoma, we may now have the ability to design a new, more specific drug to target that gene," she says.

Interestingly, the melanoma gene is not a known oncogene -- one known to cause cancer -- but one that normally is involved in brain functions like learning and memory, says Chen.

Whether any gene becomes active or not is tightly regulated by many factors, she explains. This gene leads to malignant melanoma only when it gets "switched on" in certain skin cells.

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