Researchers at Israel's Tel Aviv University have made a breakthrough finding in understanding how the most aggressive and lethal type of skin cancer spreads through the body. And how it can be stopped.
Melanoma causes the death of one person every 52 minutes, according to data from the Skin Cancer Foundation. As the disease itself, new cases of the disease are spreading like cancer. Diagnosed cased have been on the rise for 30 years.
During that time, and especially in the last decade, scientists have developed a number of treatments for melanoma, but a true cure has not yet been discovered. The new Tel Aviv University study proposes effective methods for diagnosing and preventing this form of cancer.
The research team found that the metastatic (spreading) mechanism of melanoma allows the disease to travel inward from the outer layer of the skin, or the epidermis, where it begins. After forming, the melanoma sends out tiny vesicles containing genetic material in the form of microRNA molecules deeper into the skin, into the dermis layer, from where the cancer cells can then be transported through the body.
When melanoma is present only in the epidermis, it does not have access to blood vessels, which are needed to carry the cancerous cells through the body. However, the dermis has many blood vessels, which is why preventing the spread there is crucial, the researchers determined.
The team of researchers identified two substances that can fight the cancer's spread: one that blocks the vesicles from entering the dermis and one that prevents the changes made by the genetic material to the dermis after entry in preparation for the transport of diseased cells.
The substances used by the researchers to block these processes are candidates for future drugs to fight melanoma.
"The threat of melanoma is not in the initial tumor that appears on the skin, but rather in its metastasis -- in the tumor cells sent off to colonize in vital organs like the brain, lungs, liver and bones," said head researcher Dr. Carmit Levy, of the Human Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry Department at Tel Aviv University's medical school.
"We have discovered how the cancer spreads to distant organs and found ways to stop the process before the metastatic stage," she said.
"We looked at samples of early melanoma, before the invasive stage. To our surprise, we found changes in the morphology of the dermis -- the inner layer of the skin -- that had never before been reported. Our next task was to find out what these changes were, and how they related to melanoma.
"We found that even before the cancer itself invades the dermis, it sends out tiny vesicles containing molecules of microRNA. These induce the morphological changes in the dermis in preparation for receiving and transporting the cancer cells. It then became clear to us that by blocking the vesicles, we might be able to stop the disease altogether."
In addition to the two substances identified by researchers as potential drugs to fight melanoma, the newfound understanding of how the disease spreads may help in early diagnosis of the lethal cancer.
The groundbreaking research was published in the Nature Cell Biology journal on Monday.
"Our study is an important step on the road to a full remedy for the deadliest skin cancer," Levy said. "We hope that our findings will help turn melanoma into a nonthreatening, easily curable disease."
The Tel Aviv University researchers worked in close cooperation with Professor Jorg D. Hoheisel and Laureen Sander of the German Cancer Research Center, Dr. Shoshi Greenberger of Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, and Dr. Ronen Brenner at Wolfson Medical Center. The lab research was led by Dr. Shani Dror, who belongs to Levy's research group.
Health Ministry official Dr. Hagai Kedem, who was diagnosed with melanoma about 10 years ago, and, following treatment, had it reappear in 2013, expressed excitement about the new findings.
"I can only express my hope that this breakthrough idea will become a functional drug as quickly as possible," Kedem said.
"The idea on which the research is based sounds amazing. The million-dollar question is: How long will it take to go from research findings to a functional drug? And that is something that could take years. Unfortunately, I don't think it will be relevant for me.
"The breakthroughs in melanoma [research] in recent years are being made at an amazing pace. In May 2014, the doctor who treats me, Professor Michal Lotem of Hadassah Medical Center, thought I would only have a month to live -- and it's been two years since then."
Kedem cautioned that despite the advances in research, there is no "miracle drug."
"None of the new drugs I received -- both those included in the state's health care basket [of subsidized medications] and those that were not -- worked," he said. "The only thing that worked was the chemotherapy that was included in the basket."
This is a lightly edited version of the original article published by Israel Hayom at http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=35867