Saving Your Skin


May is Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month: the perfect time to learn more about the disease – and what the Weizmann Institute of Science is doing to help.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in America, and it’s on the rise, at least in part due to the increased intensity of ultraviolet (UV) rays as a result of climate change. In fact, while skin cancers can have several causes, “the vast majority of melanomas are caused by the sun,” according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, which also cites a U.K. study finding that “about 86 percent of melanomas can be attributed to exposure to ultraviolet … radiation from the sun.”

Melanoma is the deadliest of the skin cancers, says the American Cancer Society, with someone dying of the disease every 52 minutes. 

While such statistics are alarming, they also give hope, because they point to a simple way to avoid skin cancer: protect yourself from the sun. Prevention – such as wearing a high-SPF sunblock (even if it’s overcast) and protective clothing whenever we go outside – and early screening are the most important tools in our skin-cancer-defeating arsenal. 

Melanoma can be fatal once it develops, as it is fast-moving and difficult to treat. That’s why the Weizmann Institute of Science is also moving fast, shining a light on skin cancers from a number of angles.

For example, just a few months ago, noted skin cancer researcher Prof. Yardena Samuels and her team discovered a tumor suppressor gene that affects the survival of melanomas.

The scientists were searching their database of more than 500 melanoma genomes and exomes (protein-building sequences) – the largest melanoma data set in the world – looking for these tumor suppressor genes, which do just what their name says: suppress tumors, like brakes on the cancer’s growth. But when the suppressor genes are mutated, the brakes become defective. 

The tumor suppressor gene they found normally stops a protein that is known to help cause cancer; however, when the gene is mutated, its faulty brakes can’t effectively stop the cancer-causing protein. Patients with dysfunction in this area are known to have worse prognosis than people with other types of melanomas. But Prof. Samuels and her team were able to restore the mutated tumor suppressor gene to health, causing melanoma cells to stop growing and die. This breakthrough “is likely to stimulate an avalanche of further research in this field, and is highly likely to have direct clinical relevance,” she says.

In another first, Prof. Samuels also recently helped map the melanoma genome as a member of an international consortium of scientists working on the Cancer Atlas. Digging into this “unexplored goldmine of information on what makes cancer tick” will produce a wealth of intelligence that will advance personalized skin cancer medicine. “We are entering a new era of precision medicine in melanoma,” Prof. Samuels says, “in which physicians will aim to determine the personal profile of each cancer and tailor the treatment accordingly.”

Other ongoing skin-cancer research at Weizmann includes:

  • Prof. Rony Seger discovered a molecule that keeps cancer cells from getting their “mail”: a stream of messages that cells constantly send, but which can easily go awry, promoting cancer. The mail-stopping molecule actually eradicated melanoma in tests. Prof. Seger envisions it being added to patients’ melanoma drug regimen in rotation with other meds, so that resistance – a major problem with melanoma treatments – cannot develop.
  • Prof. Samuels identified a genetic mutation found in about one-fifth of melanoma cases and that can potentially be treated by a cancer drug already on the market, meaning that a new therapy for these types of melanoma may be close at hand. Preliminary clinical trials are underway.
  • Melanoma is particularly prone to becoming resistant to drugs, but how, exactly, is it able to live through these powerful treatments? Dr. Ravid Straussman found a shocking clue: normal cells living within a tumor may actually be helping the cancer cells survive. He is now studying melanomas to identify the biological basis of this drug resistance.

You can fight skin cancer, too – by supporting these dedicated Weizmann Institute scientists and their life-saving research!