Studies show the number of skin cancer cases in the U.S. are growing at an alarming rate. In fact, over the past three decades, more people have been diagnosed with some form of skin cancer (most of which are nonmelanoma or basal and squamous cell skin cancers) than all other cancers combined. Melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer, is much less prevalent but is the deadliest type.
- An estimated 100,350 new cases of invasive melanoma (penetrating the dermis or the skin’s 2nd layer) will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2020, with 6,850 deaths expected to result from the diagnosis.
- Melanoma accounts for less than 1% of skin cancer cases, but the vast majority of skin cancer deaths.
- The overall lifetime risk of getting melanoma is about 2.6% (1 in 38) for Caucasians, 0.1% (1 in 1,000) for African Americans, and 0.6% (1 in 167) for Hispanics.
- The estimated five-year survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early is about 99% in the U.S. The survival rate falls to 65% when the disease reaches the lymph nodes and 25% when the disease metastasizes to distant organs.
Sources: American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures 2020; the Society’s website; and The Skin Cancer Foundation
Skin Cancer Research
In addition to specific projects listed below, genomics research is helping us attack skin cancer – and all types of cancer. NFCR has distinguished itself from other organizations by emphasizing long-term, transformative research and working to move people toward cancer genomics.
Dr. Danny Welch is exploring how mitochondria – a specialized cell part that generates energy for our bodies – may determine why cancer metastases develop in some patients, but not in others. Differences in tumor formation, metastasis location and responses to therapy could be from our mitochondrial DNA. With continued success, this research may suggest that a simple blood test can help guide doctors in treating melanoma patients who are susceptible to metastasis and may need more aggressive treatment.
Another discovery program led by Dr. Welch resulted in his team’s discovery of eight genes that get turned off when cancer cells become metastatic cells – known as metastasis suppressor genes. KISS1 gene was discovered in melanoma and the scientists determined that cells expressing KISS1 can complete all of the early steps of the metastatic process but do not form a new metastatic site. Continuing
research can lead to unique anti-metastasis therapeutics such as ‘mimetics’ that are similar to the KISS1 protein and could arrest metastasis.
For melanoma and other cancers, Dr. Paul Fisher is developing novel therapies that deliver an immune modulator gene he discovered, IL/24, to primary and spreading tumor cells, leaving healthy cells untouched. IL/24 causes tumor cells to commit ‘cell suicide’ and among its many anti-cancer properties, it activates the immune system to further fight cancer while sensitizing tumor cells to radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. One type of IL/24 gene therapy also includes a gene that fluoresces (lights up) when IL/24 finds and destroys tumor cells for theranostic approach (detection and treatment-monitoring). Another therapy combines IL/24 with a patient’s own immune T cells (adoptive cell therapy) to supercharge the T cells to fight cancer more effectively.
Dr. Fisher and Dr. Web Cavenee are first advancing the lL/24 therapies for the aggressive brain cancer, GBM. With support from the NFCR AIM-HI Translational Research Initiative, IL/24 gene therapy will advance soon to a Phase I clinical trial to provide GBM patients hope for a new effective treatment. Continued funding will allow patients diagnosed with metastatic melanoma and other cancers to experience this groundbreaking treatment.
Dr. Helmut Sies, who received funding from NFCR for over 30 years, spent his career studying the role of micronutrients in cancer prevention and specifically focused on carotenoids and flavonoids. He discovered that lycopene – a carotenoid and antioxidant found in tomatoes and carrots – can reduce the damaging effects of oxygen produced by our body’s essential metabolic processes and has strong skin cancer prevention effects. His research also illustrated how flavonoids (found in cocoa products) can prevent skin damage caused by ultraviolet radiation, improve blood vessel function and reduce cardiovascular risk.