Many of the medical and scientific terms used in this summary are found in the NCI Dictionary of Genetics Terms. When a linked term is clicked, the definition will appear in a separate window.
Many of the genes described in this summary are found in the Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM) database. When OMIM appears after a gene name or the name of a condition, click on OMIM for a link to more information.
Structure of the Skin
The genetics of skin cancer is an extremely broad topic. There are more than 100 types of tumors that are clinically apparent on the skin; many of these are known to have familial components, either in isolation or as part of a syndrome with other features. This is, in part, because the skin itself is a complex organ made up of multiple cell types. Furthermore, many of these cell types can undergo malignant transformation at various points in their differentiation, leading to tumors with distinct histology and dramatically different biological behaviors, such as squamous cell cancer (SCC) and basal cell cancer (BCC). These have been called nonmelanoma skin cancers or keratinocytic cancers.
Figure 1 is a simple diagram of normal skin structure. It also indicates the major cell types that are normally found in each compartment. Broadly speaking, there are two large compartments—the avascular cellular epidermis and the vascular dermis—with many cell types distributed in a largely acellular matrix.
Figure 1. Schematic representation of normal skin. The relatively avascular epidermis houses basal cell keratinocytes and squamous epithelial keratinocytes, the source cells for BCC and SCC, respectively. Melanocytes are also present in normal skin and serve as the source cell for melanoma. The separation between epidermis and dermis occurs at the basement membrane zone, located just inferior to the basal cell keratinocytes.
The outer layer or epidermis is made primarily of keratinocytes but has several other minor cell populations. The bottom layer is formed of basal keratinocytes abutting the basement membrane. The basement membrane is formed from products of keratinocytes and dermal fibroblasts, such as collagen and laminin, and is an important anatomical and functional structure. As the basal keratinocytes divide and differentiate, they lose contact with the basement membrane and form the spinous cell layer, the granular cell layer, and the keratinized outer layer or stratum corneum.
The true cytologic origin of BCC remains in question. BCC and basal cell keratinocytes share many histologic similarities, as is reflected in the name. Alternatively, the outer root sheath cells of the hair follicle have also been proposed as the cell of origin for BCC. This is suggested by the fact that BCCs occur predominantly on hair-bearing skin. BCCs rarely metastasize but can invade tissue locally or regionally, sometimes following along nerves. A tendency for superficial necrosis has resulted in the name "rodent ulcer."