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Possible breakthrough in skin cancer treatment

breakthrough in skin cancer treatment Cancer cells induced to 'eat themselves'

Cases of deadly skin cancer, also known as melanoma, are increasing at alarming rates in the UK - it is now the biggest killer of women in their twenties as we reported here.

When advanced melanoma does not respond to either chemotherapy or immunotherapy, and cannot be treated with surgery, the survival rate is usually very low.

But Spanish scientists have discovered an unexpected vulnerability in melanoma cells that can cause them to effectively eat themselves, known as autophagy.

The processes involved are complex and not fully understood. Previous research has shown that autophagy can play a part in both the halting and the spread of cancer cells.

Normal healthy animal cells are able to recognize and respond to invading viruses. Animal cells, including humans', contain single strands of RNA (ssRNA). In viruses, the RNA is double stranded (dsRNA). This allows human cells to identify the cells containing virus and recognise it as a threat.

In the new study, scientists found that melanoma cells still retain the ability to recognize and respond to dsRNA, raising the possibility that if introduced into melanoma cells, they could be fooled into attacking themselves.

By introducing a chemical designed to mimic dsRNA into the melanoma cells, they were able to stimulate melanoma cells to digest themselves. But the scientists noted that the manner in which the chemical mimic was added to the cells was critical to the success of the process.

Encouragingly, when tested on mice the process resulted in "significant anti-melanoma activity...without notable side effects" according to Dr. Maria S. Soengas, who authored the study which appears in the August edition of the journal Cancer Cell.

At this stage it is too early to say if this process will be of benefit in human cases, but it does represent an exciting new avenue for further research.

This article was published on Tue 4 August 2009

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