Identifying Melanoma as a Single Cell

A recent study published in the journal Science could provide important clues for melanoma diagnosis.  Led by Leonard Zon, M.D., of Boston Children’s Hospital, the study looked at cancer in zebrafish from the very beginning – when it starts as just a single cell.

Funded in part by MRA, the study is the first to see melanoma – or any other cancer – begin this early. The researchers found that the cancer developed from an interesting process: the cells reprogrammed back to an embryonic state.

“The process was surprising to us,” noted Dr. Zon. “The melanoma essentially reprogrammed melanocytes to a stem cell, similar to an embryo’s neural crest.”

While the study looked at melanoma in zebrafish, Dr. Zon said human melanomas work similarly. Moles contain melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells. Most moles have a common genetic alteration in a gene called BRAF, but very few moles turn deadly. Understanding the early process of how and why cancers develop could help target treatments, or perhaps reveal prevention strategies.

Dr. Zon’s team used fish that had the BRAF mutation. They created a way to make the fish cells light up in bright green if the embryonic gene called crestin was turned on. The fish that lit up with the bright green signal were the same fish that developed melanomas.

“There are important implications of this work for cancer diagnosis with a newly found tumor, and potential opportunities to stop cancer before it ever begins,” explained Dr. Zon.

The new published research builds off of earlier work by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Richard White, MD, PhD, recipient of the Maria and Bill Bell – MRA Young Investigator Award, who observed that the melanomas in zebrafish were derived from crestin-expressing cells. Dr. White is a co-author in this new paper.

Dr. Zon told the Harvard Gazette that these findings could not only lead to genetic tests for suspicious moles to see if the embryonic cells have been activated, but also help researchers develop treatments that could prevent a mole from becoming cancerous.

You can read more about Dr. Zon’s research in the New York Times.

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