A protein known as the “master watchman of the genome” for its ability to guard against cancer-causing DNA damage has been found to provide an entirely different level of cancer protection: By prompting the skin to tan in response to ultraviolet light from the sun, it deters the development of melanoma skin cancer, the fastest-increasing form of cancer in the world.
In a study in the March 9 issue of the journal Cell, researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute report that the protein, p53, is not only linked to skin tanning, but also may play a role in people’s seemingly universal desire to be in the sun ? an activity that, by promoting tanning, can reduce one’s risk of melanoma.
“The number one risk factor for melanoma is an inability to tan; people who tan easily or have dark pigmentation are far less likely to develop the disease,” says the study’s senior author, David E. Fisher, MD, PhD, director of the Melanoma Program at Dana-Farber and a professor in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston. “This study suggests that p53, one of the best-known tumor-suppressor proteins in our body, has a powerful role in protecting us against sun damage in the skin.”
Melanoma is a malignant tumor of melanocytes. Primarily it is a skin tumor, but it is also seen, though less frequently, in the melanocytes of the eye (see uveal melanoma). Even though it represents one of the rarer forms of skin cancer, melanoma underlies the majority of skin cancer-related deaths. Despite many years of intensive laboratory and clinical research, the sole effective cure is surgical resection of the primary tumor before it achieves a thickness of greater than 1 mm.