Skin cancer is by far the most common cancer in the US, making it an important area of focus for the American Cancer Society. Basal and squamous cell skin cancers affect about 2.2 million Americans each year. 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. The Society’s extramural research grants program is currently funding 23 studies with more than $6 million for skin cancer research. These efforts include:

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 Society-funded researcher Leah Ferrucci, PhD, 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.

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. Society grantee Yu-Ying He, PhD, 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.

Society-funded researcher Matthew Ramsey, PhD, is studying a protein called p63 that regulates the growth and survival of squamous cells by turning genes on and off. In squamous cell cancers, including cancers of the skin, this protein is found in high amounts. Researchers are investigating exactly how p63 drives these cancers and how growing tumors respond when the protein is turned off. If researchers find p63 is a master switch for squamous cell cancer growth, the hope is new cancer therapies could be designed to target the p63 pathway.

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.