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Genetic Mutation Shown to Trigger Melanoma


Tuesday 1 June 2010


Researchers have discovered that a genetic mutation found in some malignant melanomas can initiate development of this most deadly form of skin cancer, according to a study published today in the journal Cancer Research.


The gene KRAS was already known to be mutated in about two per cent of malignant melanomas but the new study by The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) is the first to show that damage to this gene can be the first in a procession of genetic events necessary to trigger malignant melanoma.


“We know that the main cause of skin cancer is damage driven by the UV rays in sunlight, and we are now building up a picture of the key genes involved in this disease,” lead author Professor Richard Marais from the ICR says. “We have already discovered that mutations in another gene, BRAF, could drive up to half of melanomas, and now we’ve established that damage to the KRAS gene can also be the first step in malignant melanoma development.  Ultimately, these discoveries will help us design more effective treatments for malignant melanoma.”


The incidence of malignant melanoma is increasing in the UK, with around 10,000 people diagnosed and 2,300 deaths a year. The disease is difficult to treat once it has spread to other organs.

RAS genes normally control cell growth during development and other processes such as wound healing, but they can stimulate cancer development when they malfunction.  There are three RAS genes in humans and previous research has shown that the other two, HRAS and NRAS, can trigger melanoma growth in mice, but no studies have been reported for KRAS. 


In a study funded by the ICR, Cancer Research UK and Breakthrough Breast Cancer, scientists created an animal model that mimicked how humans acquire mutations in KRAS. The results demonstrated that KRAS mutations can be the first event in melanoma development, but other genetic mutations are thought to be necessary to promote cancer growth.  It is hoped that the identification of these other changes will allow new therapeutic approaches to be developed.


Dr Helen George, head of science information at Cancer Research UK, said: “The results from this study are very encouraging as they add to our knowledge of the key genetic events that can cause skin cancer to develop. Understanding what triggers the disease will help scientists discover better treatments.


“It’s important to remember that most skin cancers are caused by overexposure to the sun or sunbeds. By taking care not to burn and enjoying the sun safely, most cases of the disease could be prevented.”



Media Contact: Science Press Officer Jane Bunce on 0207 153 5106 or after hours 07721 747900


Notes to editors:

A mouse model of melanoma driven by oncogenic KRAS is publishing in the journal Cancer Research on 1 June.

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


Cancer Research UK

  • Cancer Research UK is the world’s leading charity dedicated to beating cancer 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 thirty years.
  • Cancer Research UK supports research into all aspects of cancer through the work of more than 4,800 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


Breakthrough Breast Cancer

  • Breakthrough Breast Cancer is a pioneering charity dedicated to the prevention, treatment and ultimate eradication of breast cancer.  We fight on three fronts: research, campaigning and education
  • We fund ground-breaking research, campaign for better services and treatments and raise awareness of breast cancer.  Through this work the charity believes passionately that breast cancer can be beaten and the fear of the disease removed for good. 

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