Scientists Find Potential New Skin Cancer Treatments

Scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle have found a new method for the treatment for a common form of skin cancer. Researchers at the laboratory, under the direction of Dr. Valeri Vasioukhin, have detected that a protein, known as alpha-catenin, that functions acts as a suppressive agent for squamous cell carcinoma tumors. The research team has also discovered the process by which this protein keeps tumor cell growth in line.

Dr. Vasioukhin’s team studied mice that were genetically engineered not to create the alpha-catenin protein, which is typically found in hair follicles. The scientists noted that the mice without the protein developed squamous cell carcinoma tumors at a faster rate than the control group. Dr. Vasioukhin noted that the cells in the alpha-catenin-deficient mice grew at such a rapid rate that “they become very crowded in the Petri dish”.

The rapid rates of cell growth and proliferation are some of the primary characteristics of cancer cells. Dr. Vasioukhin also said that the fact that the mice without the protein experienced such accelerated rates of cell growth “is an important event in cancer development.” The research team found that alpha-catenin also limits the production of another protein, labeled Yap1. Scientists believe that the Yap1 protein acts as a triggering agent for cells to become malignant.

Dr. Vasioukhin also remarked on the connection between alpha-catenin and Yap1. He noted that, in the mice with alpha-catenin deficiencies, the Yap1 protein was activated. “Therefore, Yap1 is likely to be an excellent target for the treatment of patients with squamous cell carcinoma,” he said. If further tests are successful in isolating the Yap1 protein, future research efforts may be devoted to developing a treatment for squamous cell carcinoma patients based on the alpha-catenin protein.

What is squamous cell carcinoma?

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second-most common form of skin cancer, behind basal cell carcinoma and ahead of melanoma.  According to reports from public health officials, more than 700,000 cases of squamous cell carcinoma are diagnosed each year. The disease affects areas of the skin that receive more exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, including the face, arms, neck and legs.

Treatments for the disease range from topical chemotherapy and radiation therapy to surgical removal of the tumors. Dr. Ian Frazer, an Australian cancer researcher who helped develop the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, is also developing a vaccine to protect patients from squamous cell carcinoma. The vaccine is currently undergoing trials and may be ready for the mass market by 2020.


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