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New research into melanocytes could improve treatments for melanoma

Melanocytes are involved in skin pigmentation, protection against the sun and the most common skin cancer, melanoma. In a recent study, researchers have generated the first ‘atlas’ of human melanocytes located throughout the human body to deepen our understanding of melanocytes and to help develop treatments for melanoma.

What is Melanoma?

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, accounting for 1% of all cancer deaths in the UK. This particular form of cancer originates from melanocytes. Melanocytes are the cells that give rise to skin colour and eye colour through the pigment melanin. These cells also provide protection against harmful UV rays.

New insights into melanocytes

It was initially thought that all melanocytes would respond the same to a specific stimuli. However, a team of researchers at the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) have now found that melanocytes in the same area of skin respond to signals from surrounding cells in a different way. This suggests that there are likely to be different types of melanocytes. From this discovery, the team created the first atlas of human melanocytes. The team reported their findings in the journal Nature Cell Biology. During the study, the team examined the cells at different developmental stages, anatomic locations and skin tones to investigate the differences between melanocytes.

Improving treatments for melanoma

Through their research, the team identified a new melanocyte that they believe is where acral melanoma (melanoma of the hand and feet) originates. This is an important discovery as there are currently very few treatments for this type of melanoma. The team hope that their discovery will change how acral melanoma is studied and will eventually lead to the discovery of new therapeutics.

This study also reported on specific genes that were associated with the variation of skin tone in a single individual (unrelated to sun exposure). In addition, the team identified a set of genes associated with melanomas that are less likely to respond to treatment. They also found several genes that were unique to human melanoma.

“We confirmed there are different types of melanocytes that are not only associated with different biological features corresponding to specific regions of the skin but also give rise to different types of melanoma,” says lead author Rachel Belote, Ph.D., HCI postdoctoral fellow in the Judson-Torres Lab.

The researchers have already started planning a follow-up study, which will include the development of acral melanoma-specific in vivo and in vitro models to screen for acral melanoma-specific therapies. This study could provide hope for the development of an effective therapy for patients suffering with acral melanoma.

Image credit: iStock

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