Melanoma is an aggressive form of skin cancer and worldwide rates of melanoma are on the rise. One in 50 men and women will be diagnosed with melanoma during their lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute. According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 76,000 new incidents of melanoma will occur in the United States in 2016, and more than 10,000 people will die from the disease.
The good news is, if caught early, surgery to remove melanoma is often very successful. If melanoma spreads, however, survival rates diminish quickly.
The Wistar Institute is home to some of the most advanced melanoma research laboratories in the field. Our Melanoma Research Center uses the latest scientific techniques (and we are pioneering a few of our own) to study the underlying biology of melanoma—such as the genetics that control melanoma growth or how melanoma tumors manipulate healthy tissues and our immune system in order to spread.
Through their efforts, Wistar’s melanoma scientists hope to develop new drugs, new prognostic tests and new treatment strategies to halt the spread of melanoma.
It’s Melanoma Awareness Month, and here are 10 things you ought to know about melanoma.
- Cause. Melanoma is unique in that the overwhelming majority of cases are caused by exposure to ultraviolet light (UV). Unlike rays of visible light, UV rays can penetrate your skin and directly damage your DNA, which can lead to cancer over time. It can also damage collagen fibers in your skin, which leads to wrinkles and other signs of aging.
- Genetics. In a tiny minority of cases, melanoma can be a hereditary disease, caused by rare mutations that run in families. At its core, cancer is a disease of the genes, whether mutations are inherited or acquired over time. Wistar scientists probe the genetics of melanoma to discover genes responsible for the disease and the interrelated networks of other genes that these mutations disrupt. One of the goals of Wistar’s Melanoma Research Center is to use our understanding of the genes and proteins that control melanoma in order to develop new therapeutics that target cancer cells, specifically.
- Melanocytes. Melanoma cells begin as melanocytes, the cells responsible for producing the melanin, which is the pigment that colors our skin. In response to UV exposure, melanocytes produce more melanin, which helps protect tissue beneath the skin from UV damage. This protection, however, comes at a cost, as melanocytes grow out of control.
- Morbidity. Melanoma is one of the least common forms of skin cancer, but it causes a disproportionate of skin cancer deaths -- about 75 percent.
- Prevention. Fortunately, we all have the power to prevent melanoma. Sunscreen (SPF 30 and above), hats, and clothing will drastically reduce your risks of melanoma. So slap on a hat and lather up the sunscreen to protect yourself and your children.
- Burning. There is no such thing as a “protective base tan.” It’s a myth. A tan is skin damage. Over time, skin damage leads to gene damage.
- Indoor Tanning. Indoor tanning is certainly not safer than outdoor tanning. In fact, it can be worse, exposing you to higher concentrations of UV radiation over significant periods of time.
- Detection. Know your moles. Your best bet for catching melanoma early is an annual visit with a dermatologist and your own vigilance.
- Artificial Skin. Wistar scientists have pioneered the use of three-dimensional cell cultures they refer to as “artificial skin”—a reconstruction of the complex ecosystem of different cells types found in skin. At the Melanoma Research Center, Wistar researchers use the artificial skin to study the genetics of melanoma and as a test bed for new drugs and combination therapies.
- Baseball. America’s favorite pastime is a sunny day at the ballpark, so what better place for melanoma awareness than a bright spring day at Citizen’s Bank Park, where the world’s greatest baseball team, the Philadelphia Phillies meets up with the Atlanta Braves.