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Research Center

Rethinking Melanoma

Genetics and Melanoma: The Key to Prevention and Treatment

In order to prevent melanoma or find it during its treatable stages, it is important to identify who is at an increased risk for melanoma.  There are several risk factors for melanoma that are currently known.  These include physical characteristics, such as:

Many of these physical characteristics may be genetic, meaning that they are inherited and shared within families.  In addition to genes that determine physical characteristics, there are other genes that, when altered, may lead to an increased risk of melanoma.  These genes are important for controlling the division of cells in our body.  When altered, there may be an increase in cell division and the development of cancer.  The only known environmental risk factor for melanoma is ultraviolet light (UV) exposure; however, researchers and physicians believe there are other environmental and genetic risk factors that have yet to be discovered.

By discovering these currently unknown risk factors, doctors will be able to improve both the treatment and prevention of melanoma.  Patients who are found to have genetic and physical traits that are tied to melanoma can be followed closely by their doctor to catch melanoma in its early, treatable stages.  Patients who are exposed to environmental causes of melanoma can be educated on how to avoid these risks and also be examined by their caregiver into the future.

Researchers have studied melanoma cells in clinical laboratories and discovered that there are actually different types of melanoma.  Each type looks and acts in a certain way.  Determining what genetic, physical and environmental factors caused a patent's melanoma will allow doctors to craft treatments that are more tailored to that patent's specific type of melanoma.  Exciting, new research underway will move from recognizing these melanoma differences in laboratories to recognizing them in doctor's offices, ushering in a new era of melanoma prevention and treatment.

Research in Action

At the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Department of Dermatology, patients will be invited to participate in a unique research project that aims to improve melanoma treatment and prevention.  Patients who receive or have received a new melanoma diagnosis at this institution will be asked to join in this groundbreaking study.  Information regarding all of the known and possible risk factors for melanoma will be collected from the participants.  In addition, genetic information (DNA) will be collected to test whether changes in certain genes can increase the risk for melanoma.  Physicians and researchers will then put all of this information together so that it can be compared and contrasted.  It will then be used to identify new risk factors for this cancer.

The study will also keep track of the treatments that the patients receive and the outcomes that they experience.  Melanoma tissue will be collected from the patients and examined for genetic and molecular information.  This crucial information will help physicians determine what approaches and treatments are most effective for different types of melanoma.

From Lab Bench to Bedside

Once the information from this study is collected and organized, it will be added to the discoveries already made in clinical laboratories nation and worldwide.  From these data, experts will be able to sort out the different types of melanoma and the risk factors that enable them to form.  Recognizing the genetic changes that cause melanoma will allow researchers to develop new, more specific treatments for this deadly disease.  After all, melanoma may be only millimeters in size, but its effects are immeasurable.

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Last Reviewed: Aug 26, 2013

Meg R Gerstenblith, MD Meg R Gerstenblith, MD
Assistant Professor of Dermatology
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University