As reported in the May 31, 2013 edition of USA Today, this year’s four day meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago will center stage skin cancer; specifically melanoma. Studies presented on melanoma will number 288 versus 62 just a decade ago. Since 2011 only four new melanoma specific cancer drugs have been approved by the FDA, the first in over a decade. While promising, these new therapies improve life extension by only a few months. Melanoma is most dangerous skin cancer.
According to Lynn Schuchter, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, melanoma is increasing at a phenomenal rate. To date, no one can claim a cure for the 77,000 individuals who are diagnosed with melanoma each year and kills nearly 10,000 of them. According to researchers at the Mayo Clinic, the cumulative effects of overexposure to UV rays is the primary cause. It has been determined that a moderate number of sunburns during childhood can lead to skin cancer down the road.
Unlike traditional chemo, which indiscriminately kills growing cells, the new generation of melanoma drugs work in a precise way, based on a better understanding of the specific genes and proteins that drive cancer growth, says Timothy Turnham, executive director of the Melanoma Research Foundation.”The reason we’re seeing these breakthroughs is because we did the basic science research to help us understand how this cancer happens, how it escapes therapy and how it progresses,” Turnham says. “Many of the new drugs aim to remove melanoma’s ‘cloaking device’, allowing it to be recognized and killed by the immune system”, says Roy Herbst, chief of medical oncology at the Yale Cancer Center.
None of the new drugs works for everyone and none are risk-free. “Doctors will say, ‘There are side effects, but they are manageable,'” Turnham said and added, “‘manageable’ can mean something different to patients.”
In my opinion at this point in time, it appears that one of the best ways to avoid melanoma is prevention. Melanoma does not appear overnight, it takes about 20 years for a healthy cell to become cancerous and even then several elements have to be in place. Breaking the cell wall usually by overexposure, allowing oxygen to enter the cell and free radicals to begin the metamorphosis is most common. Complete avoidance of UV rays is all but impossible and the use of SPF is still questionable due to false claims by manufacturers. Moderation is the key here; giving the exposed skin the opportunity to develop a base tan as its defense against sun burning.
Another method of avoiding the sun is via sunless tanning. This is achieved with some lotions and spray tans, but the results can be less than desirable and short term providing no protection from UV rays. New to the scene is a synthetic hormone, Melanotan 2, also known as MT2. First produced in the early nineties by the University of Arizona School of Pharmacology (UASP), it is a synthetic version of the body’s naturally occurring hormone alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone(a-MSH). It acts to stimulate the production of melanin and thus develops a tan from the lower levels of the dermis. It is still considered a research drug by the FDA but is widely available on the internet.
The Fitzpatrick Skin Type Scale ranks skin types from 1 being pale white to 6 being very dark brown or black. Those falling in the 1 and 2 types are four times more likely to burn and develop skin cancer than those at the in the darker ranges. The skin types are due to genetic disposition and the researchers at UASP wanted to develop a synthetic hormone to reduce the damage done by UV rays to the skin. MT2 seems to be a plausible way of prevention due to increased production of melanin. MT2 allows those who have never been able to tan to develop coloration besides pasty white. Melanotan 2, has been found to be an excellent stimulant for increasing melanin in all skin types with the exception of Albinos, who have no melanocytes. Even those with healthy tans and darker skin should avoid the mid-day sun.
With this in mind, be smart and enjoy your summer and remember to avoid UV rays by whatever method you choose…..but do choose one.