A recent study conducted by scientists in Israel has shed new light on the mechanics of how melanomas develop and ultimately spread cancer cells through the body. Led by Dr Carmit Levy at the Department of Human Genetics and Biochemistry at the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University, the study has identified what may trigger a melanoma to change from simply being a (cancerous) growth in the skin to releasing invasive cancer cells that travel to other parts of the body.

The study involved the collection of skin samples from patients in hospitals across Israel and comparing melanoma cells with healthy skin cells. The key finding was that, when mixing healthy cells with melanoma cells, it was the ‘microenvironment’ that drove the creation of invasive cells (metastasis), not the acquisition of a mutation.

It also found that melanoma cells initially grow upwards out of the skin, but at a certain point change directions and grow down into a lower layer of skin, the dermis. When the melanoma cells contact the dermis layer of skin, something called ‘notch signalling’ is switched on which in turn changes those melanoma cells into invasive cells which transfers into the blood vessels below the skin.

This discovery of new information about the mechanism of metastasis of melanoma cells opens the door to the application of new treatments to block this change in the cells, in fact there are already drugs in use which are effective in blocking the ‘notch signalling’ response, and Dr Levy speculates that in time there may be a cream developed that people with melanoma can rub into the skin to prevent the creation of invasive cells and subsequent spread through the body.

With melanoma rates rising rapidly around the world and this skin cancer type being responsible for almost all skin cancer related deaths despite representing only 2% of all skin cancers diagnosed, this research offers the promise of much more effective treatment of melanoma in the future.