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Experts say early detection is a key to treating melanoma. andresr/Getty Images
  • New research has identified a protein that helps tumors evade immune response, fueling the development of melanoma.
  • Researchers say targeted therapies aimed specifically at this protein should help increase the efficacy of immunotherapy.
  • Melanoma is one of the most common cancers and is frequently caused by exposure to UV light, although genetic factors play a role as well
  • Experts recommend avoiding direct exposure to sunlight and tanning beds as well as keeping an eye on moles that look unusual.

New research into the development of melanoma has shed new light on how this skin cancer grows while creating potential new avenues for its treatment.

In a study published in the journal Science Advances, researchers demonstrated how a protein known as NR2F6 helps fuel the development of tumors by helping them evade the immune system.

The researchers found that removing the protein in mice ensured a more effective response to immunotherapy.

“This tells us that NR2F6 helps melanoma evade the immune system, and without it, the immune system can more readily suppress tumor growth,” Dr. Hyungsoo Kim, a study first author and a research assistant professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys, a research institute in La Jolla, California, explained in a statement.

Because the protein acts similarly whether it is in a tumor or in its surrounding tissues, it is believed that treatments that block its activity could be doubly effective.

The researchers are now working to identify new drugs that can specifically target NR2F6.

Dr. Ahmad Chaudhry, a dermatologist based in the United Kingdom, told Medical News Today that melanoma develops when the DNA in skin cells gets damaged.

“This is often due to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning beds,” Chaudhry said. “This damage causes the melanocytes (melanin-producing cells) to grow uncontrollably and form a mass of cancerous cells. Sometimes, melanoma can also develop in the eyes or internal organs, but this is less common.”

While there’s a good reason for skin cancer being associated with sunlight and tanning beds, there are a number of genetic risk factors that can also contribute.

Dr Sudarsan Kollimuttathuillam, a medical oncologist and hematologist at the Huntington Beach and Irvine Sand Canyon locations of City of Hope, a cancer research charity in California, told Medical News Today that 7% to 15% of people diagnosed with melanoma also have a family member with the disease.

“Having features like fair skin, freckles, or blonde or red hair increase a person’s risk of skin cancer in general,” he explained. “There is also an inherited condition known as atypical mole syndrome, characterized by a large number of moles of abnormal shape or color, that significantly increases the lifetime risk of melanoma.”

Genetics can’t be altered, but risk can be lowered. To lower your risk of developing skin cancers, doctors advise limiting exposure to the sun during peak hours, avoiding tanning beds in general, and using sun protection while outside.

“Regular skin examinations, by yourself and by a dermatologist, will help detect melanoma at an early stage, when it is more treatable,” said Kollimuttathuillam. “If you have moles that look abnormal, moles that change or grow, or an unusual number of moles, getting examined by a dermatologist is particularly important.”

Skin cancers such melanoma form one of the most common types of cancer.

The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 97,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2023.

As noted, there are a number of telltale signs – from genetics to moles – that can be an early warning of melanoma. If a doctor believes a mole may be cancerous, the next step generally involves removing and then analyzing the mole. A series of tests can determine whether melanoma is present or not.

Since melanoma is a fast-spreading cancer, it’s important to make an early diagnosis.

“Compared to other skin cancers, melanoma is the most likely to metastasize which is why imaging procedures may be used to identify cancer cells that have spread to distant organs or bones,” said Kollimuttathuillam.

Once a patient is diagnosed with melanoma, a number of treatment options are on the table, ranging from radiation therapy to surgery to immunotherapy.

“We know that the best way to stop cancer is to prevent it and patients with the earliest stages of melanoma usually do not need imaging tests,” explained Kollimuttathuillam. “I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for patients to be advocates of their skin health to avoid advanced stages of this disease.”