An Indian origin researcher and his team have discovered one of the reasons why melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer, is so malignant.
Piyush Gupta, lead author of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology research team, found that melanoma, unlike other cancers, is born with its metastatic (spread of cancer cells) engines in full operation.
Melanoma kills about 10,000 Americans a year out of the 60,000 that contract it. A disease caused in large part by overexposure to the sun's harmful rays, Melanoma spreads rapidly if not caught at an early stage.
Gupta and the team of researchers at MIT and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research found that while other cancers have to learn how to spread, melanoma is equipped with the mechanism to spread.
The tem was led by Whitehead member Robert Weinberg, an MIT professor of biology and senior author of a paper on the work in the journal Nature Genetics.
The study shows that melanocytes, the cells that protect the skin from sun damage by producing pigmentation - another word for a tan -, transform into cancer cells and kick into gear a dormant cellular process that lets them quickly move to other parts of the body, unlike other cancers that have to first find a healthy cell to latch on to.
The dormant cellular process is set in motion by a gene called Slug, which is present in the "neural crest", an early cluster of embryonic cells that in adulthood form several cell types including the melanocytes.
"Slug is a key component of the neural crest's ability to migrate," Gupta, a MIT graduate student in Weinberg's lab and first author on the paper is quoted saying. "Following its activation during embryonic development, Slug is shut off in adult tissues."
But when skin cells become malignant, they easily reactivate Slug and are able to spread, a process other cancers take decades to go through.
The research team found that when Slug was knocked out in melanoma cells, the cancer was unable to metastasize when placed into a mouse.
"This work is yet another demonstration of the notion that certain embryonic genes normally involved in transferring cells from one part of the body to another are also involved in enabling cancer cells to spread," Weinberg said.
Additional authors of the paper are from Tufts University, New England Medical Center, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University and the University of California at San Francisco.
This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute.