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Discovery could lead to skin cancer immunotherapy

March 07, 2017 | UC Irvine Health
physician checking mole on male patient's back; melanoma immunotherapy shows promise

Using the body’s immune system to fight proliferating cancer cells has shown great promise, particularly against deadly common cancers like melanoma. It also highlights the need for additional basic science research into the biology of cancer cells.

This kind of work yielded a discovery by UC Irvine Health researchers recently published in the journal Cell Reports. Led by Dr. Anand Ganesan, the team identified a specific mutation that allows melanoma tumor cells to remain undetected by the immune system.

“Cancers develop not only because they acquire mutations that promote their growth but also because they are able to prevent the immune system from recognizing and removing them,” says Ganesan, a UC Irvine Health dermatologist and an associate professor in the UC Irvine School of Medicine.

How tumors hide from the immune system

Understanding the multiple ways tumor cells evade immune system detection is important, Ganesan says. Tumors are resilient and many types of cancers have shown the ability to adapt to new treatments.

Ganesan explains that researchers identified a mutation in the ATR gene, a protein that normally recognizes and repairs UV-induced DNA damage in melanoma tumors. Cancers with this ATR mutation suppress the body’s natural immune response.

“Understanding how developing tumors interact with the immune system to promote their continued growth is a key to developing effective immunotherapies,” he said. 

Skin cancer biology

Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. In 2017, it’s expected that more than 87,000 new melanomas will be diagnosed (about 52,170 in men and 34,940 in women). About 9,730 people are expected to die of the disease.

Conducting basic science research into understanding the biology of cancer is among the main reasons the National Cancer Institute created the comprehensive cancer center program. The UC Irvine Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center is one of only 57 such centers and the only one in Orange County. 

While other cancer centers follow national guidelines for treating cancers, NCI-comprehensive cancer centers like UC Irvine’s exist to pave the way by conducting basic and applied research that leads to discovering new cancer therapies. View our clinical trials ›

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