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Skin Cancer Research Highlights

Skin cancer is by far the most common cancer in the U.S., making it an important area of focus for the American Cancer Society. The exact number of all skin cancers that are diagnosed each year is unknown because the most common types – basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers – are not required to be reported to cancer registries. Researchers estimate that 5.4 million cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, were diagnosed in 3.3 million people in the United States in 2012. Melanoma is a less common but much more dangerous type of skin cancer that will be diagnosed in almost 74,000 people in 2015.

We know a lot about what causes skin cancer, but we’re still learning how best to prevent and treat it. Each year, skin cancer rates continue to rise. Research to discover the most effective ways to prevent and treat all types of skin cancer remains a priority for the Society.

From ACS Researchers

The American Cancer Society employs a staff of full-time researchers who relentlessly pursue the answers that help us understand how to prevent, detect, and treat cancer, including skin cancer.

The Society publishes Cancer Facts & Figures annually, which provides detailed analyses of cancer incidence and mortality trends in the U.S., as well as the latest information on risk factors, early detection, treatment, and current research. Key skin cancer findings include:

  • Many of the more than 3 million skin cancer cases that are diagnosed annually could be prevented by protecting skin from excessive sun exposure and avoiding indoor tanning.
  • An estimated 73,870 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with melanoma and 10,000 will die from it in 2015.
  • The five-year survival rate for melanoma of the skin has increased from 82% in the mid-1970s to 93% for cases diagnosed during 2004-2010.


The Society’s internal research team is also:

  • Analyzing data on an ongoing basis from Cancer Prevention Study II (CPS-II), which the Society began in 1982, to investigate linkages between lifestyle and skin cancer.
  • Conducting a new multi-year cancer prevention study, CPS-3, to better understand ways to prevent cancer, including skin cancer.

ACS-Funded Research and Training Grants in Skin Cancer*

The Society also supports an Extramural Grants program that funds individual investigators engaged in cancer research or training at medical schools, universities, research institutes and hospitals throughout the U.S. Following rigorous and independent peer review, the most innovative research projects are selected for support.

Total ACS grants currently in effect addressing skin cancer: 61
Total ACS grant funding currently committed to skin cancer: $21,728,795

Spotlight on grantees: The following are some of the skin cancer investigators currently being funded by the American Cancer Society who are working to find the answers that will save more lives and better prevent, treat, and manage skin cancer.

Preventing Skin Cancer

Despite the soaring statistics, skin cancer is actually one of the most preventable cancers. The first line of defense is protecting the skin from UV exposure, yet only about 32% of Americans wear sunscreen when spending time outdoors and nearly 30 million tan indoors every year.

Leah Ferrucci 150x150Young women are the heaviest users of tanning beds. That’s why Leah Ferrucci, PhD, at Yale University, is developing a web-based intervention to reduce indoor tanning among young women recently diagnosed with a non-cancerous skin condition related to UV exposure. The researcher will also develop a method to prevent adolescent girls from trying indoor tanning. Interventions to stop or prevent tanning bed use could potentially result in fewer skin cancer cases and deaths. The Society recommends people avoid tanning beds completely. 


He Yu-YingSkin cancer prevention efforts are also focused on another group at high risk for skin cancer: organ transplant recipients, whose numbers are growing as more people survive these procedures. The immune-suppressing drugs needed to prevent organ rejection leave organ transplant recipients highly vulnerable to the skin-damaging effects of UV exposure. Yu-Ying He, PhD, at the University of Chicago, is looking at whether suppression of the immune system is the only factor at play or if other mechanisms are making these patients more susceptible to UV damage. The hope is to develop targeted strategies to prevent skin cancer in this at-risk group.

Peter Kanetsky, PhD, MPH, at the Moffitt Cancer Center, has uncovered that people with darker complexions who have certain mutations in a gene called MC1R are at increased risk for developing melanoma. However, Kanetsky notes that many of these individuals are unaware of their higher risk and may in fact think they have a lower risk because they may tan well and have few freckles. Kanetsky is studying whether giving people in this group information about their risk of melanoma due to a MC1R mutation will cause them to engage in better skin cancer prevention. He estimates that if his intervention program works that it could help to prevent or detect at an early stage between 8% and 33% of melanomas.

Treating Skin Cancer

Treatment for skin cancer depends on the type. While melanoma skin cancer often requires intensive treatment, basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers can usually be cured with fairly minor surgery or other minimal treatments. However, large squamous cell cancers are harder to treat.

Kyle Hadden Kyle Hadden, PhD, at the University of Connecticut, is investigating whether vitamin D, which the body creates naturally when in the sun, has the potential to be used as a starting point in the creation of new drugs to treat skin cancer. Hadden is working with vitamin D because it has been shown to inhibit a pathway in the body’s cells known as the Hedgehog pathway. This pathway is usually inactive in normal adult cells, but if it mistakenly activates, it may contribute to the development of a variety of tumors, including skin. Blocking malfunctioning Hedgehog pathways with vitamin D may be a treatment strategy for these tumors. 

test tubes with writing Deborah Lang, PhD, at the University of Chicago, is researching how melanoma is able to easily spread from its initial location to other places in the body. She hopes her work will provide the answers needed to create new and innovative treatment options for this cancer. This is important, she notes, as currently melanoma is extremely hard to treat once it can no longer be removed with surgery. Melanoma has few treatment options once it spreads.


Barbara Bedogni, PhD, at Case Western Reserve University, is studying the role of two specific molecules in the growth of melanoma. Based on initial research, Bedogni believes that these two molecules – called Notch1 and neuregulin1 – play a fundamental role in the growth and spread of melanoma cells. She hopes to find out whether inhibiting these two molecules can stop the melanoma growth and metastasis. Bedogni notes that drugs that inhibit both Notch1 and neuregulin1 already exist and are used for the treatment of other cancers, meaning such drugs may be more easily available for use against melanoma.


close up of dropperXiaoyang Wu, PhD, at the University of Chicago, is studying a protein called RIPK4, which affects the role skin cancer stem cells play in the growth of skin tumors, such as squamous cell carcinoma. Wu hopes that by better understanding the mechanisms that control the behaviors of skin cancer stem cells, his work will lead to the development of new treatments for the disease.


*Information current as of March 1, 2015.

Other Ways ACS Fights Skin Cancer

In addition to conducting and funding skin cancer research, the American Cancer Society helps fight skin cancer through education, support services, and advocacy. Explore how the Society helps>