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Faulty Gene Behind Skin Cancer Also Triggers Spread

Thursday 6th January 2011


Cancer Research UK-funded scientists have discovered that skin cancer can spread to the lungs when a gene in an important cell communication pathway is blocked. The research is published in Cancer Cell today (Thursday).


Scientists from The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) showed that in human cancer cells and mice, a gene called BRAF - which is damaged in about half of all skin cancer cases - triggers a cell signalling pathway that ultimately ‘blocks the instructions’ from a second gene called PDE5A.


In healthy cells PDE5A acts as a brake to stop cell movement. But in cancer cells, BRAF turns PDE5A’s signals off, removing its ability to block cancer spread.


By blocking the activity of PDE5A, BRAF drives skin cancer cells to invade new tissues and spread further around the body, converting skin cancer into a more aggressive disease.


The team showed that when faulty BRAF blocked PDE5A, the skin cancer cells spread more easily to the lungs.


Lead study author, Professor Richard Marais, said: “This research further puts the focus on BRAF as an important target for therapy to prevent the spread of skin cancer.


“Our findings support recent studies into experimental BRAF-targeting drugs, which are showing great promise in patients with melanoma cells with a damaged BRAF gene, but not in patients whose melanomas do not have this alteration. This highlights the importance of personalising medicine to achieve effective treatments for cancer.”


Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, said: “These new findings reveal more of the complex web of signals that drive the development of tumours that have the ability to grow, survive and spread to new locations.


“Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer and more than 2,000 people die from the disease each year. Even more worrying is the fact that rates of melanoma are rising.


“There are definite signs when a mole is suspicious and should be seen by a doctor. If you have a mole that is getting bigger, changing shape or colour, is itchy or painful, bleeding or inflamed you should go to the doctor straight away.”




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About Cancer Research UK

  • Cancer Research UK is the world’s leading cancer charity dedicated to saving lives through research.
  • The charity’s groundbreaking work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has helped save millions of lives.  This work is funded entirely by the public.
  • Cancer Research UK has been at the heart of the progress that has already seen survival rates double in the last forty years.
  • Cancer Research UK supports research into all aspects of cancer through the work of over 4,000 scientists, doctors and nurses.
  • Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK's vision is to beat cancer.

For further information about Cancer Research UK's work or to find out how to support the charity, please call 020 7121 6699 or visit


The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR)

  • The ICR is Europe’s leading cancer research centre.
  • The ICR has been ranked the UK’s top academic research centre, based on the results of the Higher Education Funding Council’s Research Assessment Exercise.
  • The ICR works closely with partner The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust to ensure patients immediately benefit from new research. Together the two organisations form the largest comprehensive cancer centre in Europe.
  • The ICR has charitable status and relies on voluntary income, spending 90 pence in every pound of total income directly on research.
  • As a college of the University of London, the ICR also provides postgraduate higher education of international distinction.
  • Over its 100-year history, the ICR’s achievements include identifying the potential link between smoking and lung cancer which was subsequently confirmed, discovering that DNA damage is the basic cause of cancer and isolating more cancer-related genes than any other organisation in the world.

For more information visit

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