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Blocking Protein May Help Protect Against Skin Cancers

Posted: March 12, 2009

A recent study has shown controlling a particular protein in the blood can help protect against skin cancers, possibly providing future treatment options in skin and sun care.

New research suggests that blocking the activity of a protein in the blood could offer powerful protection against some skin cancers. In the study, normal mice and mice that had a genetically engineered protein deficiency were exposed to almost a year of ultraviolet light that mimics chronic sun exposure. The mice that lacked the protein developed fewer, smaller, less aggressive and less vascular skin cancer tumors than did the normal mice.

Because a low-dose drug that blocks the protein’s activity in the blood is currently under investigation by a Pennsylvania pharmaceutical company, the researchers hope that someday, a simple pill might help prevent or treat nonmelanoma skin cancer in people at highest risk for the disease.

More than 1 million cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year, according to the National Cancer Institute. The two most common types are basal cell carcinoma, which forms in small cells in the base of the outer layer of skin, and squamous cell carcinoma, which forms in cells that compose the surface of the skin.

The protein is called macrophage migration inhibitory factor, or MIF. It is a pro-inflammatory cytokine present in human blood that generates inflammation in response to infection, offering protection against some pathogens. But in this research, MIF emerged as a contributor to the chronic inflammation that precedes the development of skin cancer after long-term sun exposure. Previous studies have implicated MIF in other cancers, as well.