Thursday, July 19, 2012

Melanoma and particle physics

Human melanoma cells.
Image: Paul J.Smith & Rachel Errington.
Even the indoor tanning industry admits that UV light causes the most common forms of skin cancer, basal and squamous cell carcinoma. They claim, however, that there is insufficient scientific evidence to prove that UV radiation causes melanoma, a much more rare but lethal form of skin cancer. In a way, they're right. Forgive my far-fetched analogy here, but pinning down the exact molecular mechanism that causes melanoma has been kind of like the physicists at MIT hunting down the Higg's boson. We can see all this evidence suggesting that it exists, but we don't have the technological capacity to prove it. Now that we found the Higg's boson, surely it isn't too much to ask that we determine once and for all that yes, UV radiation causes melanoma? After all, in epidemiological studies, severe sunburns and tanning bed use significantly increase a person's risk for developing the disease. We just need that final bit of information that explains why.

A group of scientists from M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and the Broad Institute are getting closer. A new paper published this week in Cell identifies six new "melanoma genes," three of which are described by one of the paper's author's as, "The first 'smoking gun' genomic evidence directly linking damage from UV light to melanoma."

This line of research may also guide scientists toward more effective treatments for advanced-stage melanoma. I guess it's not quite as monumental as the discovery of the "God particle," but I'll take what I can get.

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