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. More than 3 million new cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancers will be diagnosed in 2014. Melanoma is a less common but much more dangerous type of skin cancer that affects more than 76,000 people annually.
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 76,100 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with melanoma and 9,710 are expected to die from it in 2014.
- The five-year survival rate for melanoma of the skin has increased from 82% in the mid-1970s to 93% for cases diagnosed during 2003-2009.
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: 42
Total ACS grant funding currently committed to skin cancer: $13,800,345
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.
Young 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.
Skin 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.
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, 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.
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.
Eric Williams, PhD, at MIT is researching the role an “anti-aging” gene called Sirt1 plays in skin cancer. The majority of studies on the topic thus far show that activating Sirt1 with the use of certain chemicals can help prevent the initial onset of cancer. But other studies indicate that turning off this gene may reduce cancer growth if done after the onset of the cancer. Williams’ research will help determine more clearly the role Sirt1 plays in either promoting or preventing skin cancer.
Xiaoyang 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>