A gene that helps protect the body from squamous cell cancer (SCC) - a common type of skin cancer has been identified by scientists.
It is an extraordinary breakthrough that could make available new cancer treatments and prevention to the public in five years, according to the team led by Professor Stephen Jane and Dr Charbel Darido of Monash University's Department of Medicine at the Alfred Hospital.
The Cancer Council estimates that two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer before the age of 70 with SCC being one of the most common forms.
Up until now, its genetic basis has not been well understood, with surgical treatments the only option.
Professor Jane said the team discovered that a gene with an important role in skin development in the foetus is missing in adult SCC tumour cells.
Although the researchers initially focused on skin cancer, they found that the protective gene is also lost in SCC that arises in other tissues, including head and neck cancers that are often associated with a very poor outcome for the patient.
"Virtually every SCC tumour we looked at had almost undetectable levels of this particular gene, so its absence is a very profound driver of these cancers," Professor Jane stated.
The Monash researchers showed that loss of this particular gene knocks out the signal to stop skin cells from growing. Without this stop signal, the cells keep increasing in number and eventually forms a cancer.
Identifying this driver of cancer in skin and other organs provides a clear direction for developing strategies for both prevention and treatment in the relatively near future.
"Our research indicates that drugs already in clinical trials for other cancers may actually be effective in treating SCC - they just need to be applied to skin or head and neck cancers," Professor Jane indicated.
The breakthrough discovery has been published in the leading international cancer journal, Cancer Cell.