The study suggests the enzyme inhibitors make melanoma cells more vulnerable to some anti-tumor drugs.
A paper on the work, led by the University of California-Irvine (UCI), is published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry.
Estimates from the National Cancer Institute show that nearly 74,000 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma and nearly 10,000 will die from the disease in 2015.
Daniele Piomelli, a UCI professor of anatomy and neurobiology and senior author of the new study, says:
"Melanoma is one of the most aggressive forms of human cancer, with very poor prognosis if not diagnosed at early stages."
Melanoma starts in melanocytes, the skin cells that make melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color.
Melanoma cells become more vulnerable to treatment
In their study, Prof. Piomelli and colleagues discovered how an enzyme called acid ceramidase can accelerate the growth of melanoma tumors.
- There are nearly 1 million people living with melanoma of the skin in the US
- 98% of patients survive 5 years or more if diagnosed while the cancer is local
- This figure falls to 16% if diagnosis is made after the cancer has spread.
They found the enzyme was highly active in samples of stage 2 melanomas taken from biopsies. This higher activity disrupts a cell-death process called apoptosis, a route through which faulty cells are normally eliminated. Without apoptosis, cancer cells are able to grow and multiply.
In the next stage of the study, the team experimented with molecules that might inhibit the activity of acid ceramidase.
In cell cultures of melanoma, the compounds appeared to make the cancer cells more vulnerable to the effects of some anti-tumor drugs.
The study did not investigate how the enzyme inhibitors work, but the researchers suggest one way could be that they put cancerous cells back on a path that leads to apoptosis.
The team notes that the compounds could be applied in a way that allows healthy skin around the tumor to deal with the cancerous cells and destroy them. This would stop them spreading to the rest of the body.
Prof. Piomelli concludes:
"With further development, we see these inhibitors being incorporated into topical treatments such as creams that can become part of an aggressive melanoma treatment program."
Meanwhile, Medical News Today recently learned how another team of researchers is developing a smart biogel that kills cancer tumors. In lab-based experiments, the team showed how the intelligent biogel could eliminate tumors by delivering a deadly payload of anti-cancer immune cells directly into them.