Israeli researchers at Tel Aviv U. discover trigger of deadly melanoma cancer

Tel Aviv University. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

( Israeli researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) have identified the trigger that transforms melanoma from harmless non-invasive cells to an invasive killer which accounts for nearly all skin cancer deaths. This will allow scientists to catch the cancer early enough to save more lives.

The discovery was first published in the Molecular Cell journal. The Israeli effort was led by Dr. Carmit Levy of the Department of Human Genetics and Biochemistry at TAU's Sackler School of Medicine, with the collaboration of researchers from Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, Sheba Medical Center, Institut Gustave Roussy, and Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Levy said the research team had to first gain a deeper understanding of the structure and function of normal skin. Melanoma is a cancer that originates in the epidermis— the outermost layer of skin, where it is relatively harmless. But it will eventually invade the lower layer of skin called the dermis, and will then invade the bloodstream and spread throughout the body.

"Normal skin cells are not supposed to 'travel,'" said Levy. "We found that when melanoma is situated at the top layer, a trigger sends it down to the dermis and then further down to invade blood vessels. If we could stop it at the top layer, block it from invading the bloodstream, we could stop the progression of the cancer."

According to the researchers, when melanoma cells come into contact with the remote epidermal layer, that triggers the activation of “notch signaling” that causes changes in the melanoma cells to become an invasive and possibly lethal agent.

"Now that we know the triggers of melanoma transformation and the kind of signaling that leads to that transformation, we know what to block,” Levy said. “The trick was to solve the mystery, and we did. There are many drugs in existence that can block the notch signaling responsible for that transformation. Maybe, in the future, people will be able to rub some substance on their skin as a prevention measure."

Posted on August 4, 2015 .