Scientists have long wondered why some skin cells developed into moles, and some skin cells develop into the deadly skin cancer, melanoma. Well, recently US researchers have theorized that this is due to a missing protein known as IGFBP7. This naturally secreted protein prevents cells from developing into melanoma, and this action holds promise to improve treatments for melanoma, the skin cancer most likely to be fatal unless caught in the early stages.
If not caught in the early stages, melanoma can be a particularly virulent form of cancer, spreading through the body with an efficiency that few tumors possess. It has recently been discovered that unlike many other cancers, melanoma is born with its metastatic engines fully revved. In other words, in melanoma, when the melanocytes–cells that protect the skin from sun damage by producing pigmentation–morph into cancer cells, they immediately reawaken a dormant cellular process that lets them travel swiftly throughout the body.
The most interesting and important fact is that IGFBP7 is part of our bodies natural defense against cancer, and in the case of melanoma, this protein appears to turn off. Recently a lab test on mice was performed on melanoma cells with a synthetic form of the protein, and the cancers actually stopped growing.
What that means is that IGFBP7 could be used as a targeted treatment, because the melanoma is sensitive to the protein. Melanoma, a less common but the most deadly skin cancer, kills close to 9,000 people in the United States alone.
The interesting fact is, that moles, also know as nevi, are harmless, are caused by an uncontrolled growth of melanoytes, as is melanoma. Studies have shown that a mutation in a gene called BRAF, causes cells to multiply abnormally in both melanoma and moles, and it was by studying BRAF that they discovered the protein IGFBP7 found the code that is responsible for this natural defense system. The interesting thing is that this protein is secreted, therefore it can affect the cells surrounding, unlike most proteins which only work inside of cells. It appears to communicate to the surrounding cells to ignore the BRAF mutations and tells them to either self destruct… or at least hibernate.