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Detecting Melanoma

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Melanoma is a serious type of skin cancer and is prevalent in those who have a positive family history of it, suggesting a genetic factor involved in it. A recent study has found out that customizing treatments with the use of genetic testing can maximize treatment of melanoma.


Melanoma is a type of skin cancer which can have serious complications. As a type of skin cancer, melanoma is caused by uncontrolled growth of pigment cells which are called melanocytes. Normally, melanocytes are flound in the basal layer of the epidermis, otherwise known as the bottom part of the outer portion of the skin. Typically, these melanocytes are cells that produce a pigment called melanin which functions to absorb ultraviolet light in the skin to protect it from the damage caused by radiation. There are an equal number of melanocytes in both black and white skin, however black skin is said to contain more melanin than fair-colored skin. This is why people with dark-colored skin can withstand damage caused by radiation as compared to those with fair-colored skin.

Melanocytes can often develop non-cancerous growths called moles or benign melanocytic naevi and freckles or ephelides and lentigines. Cancerous growth of melanocytes, on the other hand, can result to melanoma. There are people who are especially at risk for melanomas. These people include those who are white-skinned, those who are adults, those who are of older age, males, those who have pervious invasive melanomas or melanomas in situ, those who have previous non-melanoma skin cancers, those who have many melanocytic nevi or moles, multiple atypical nevi, strong family history of melanoma or with two or more first-degree relatives who are affected and those who have fair skin that can burn easily. These are just risk factors, though anyone can be affected likewise.

A melanoma grows due to the uncontrolled multiplication of melanocytes. This uncontrolled growth is governed by genes that control cell growth. The changes in these genes can also promote invasion of normal healthy tissue that surrounds the tumor. Other experts also think that melanoma is a result of uncontrolled proliferation of transformed melanocytic stem cells.

There are many types of melanoma. Melanoma may first start out as superficial melanoma which may spread out within the outer layer of cells or the epidermis. This may be noted as radial or horizontal growth phase. Melanoma in situ is a type of melanoma confined to the epidermis. Another type of melanoma, the lentigo maligna, is melanoma in situ that is found in hair follicles on skin which is sun-damaged. This is more often found on the skin of the face or of the neck. Invasive melanoma is a type of melanoma wherein cancer cells have grown through the basement membrane into the deeper layer of the skin or the dermis. If the pathologist notes a vertical growth phase of the melanoma, the lesion is said to be potentially more dangerous than the horizontal growth phase. Initially, nodular melanoma may be invasive from the start and may be on not related to sun exposure.

Melanoma cells, once they have reached the dermis, can spread to other tissue of the body through the lymphatic system and the lymph nodes or through the bloodstream to organs such as the lungs or the brain. This process of spreading to the other parts of the body is known as metastatic disease.

Genetic Testing in Melanoma Treatment

A recent clinical trial made by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) have found out that genetic screening of melanoma can help doctors in the customization of effective treatments. The study showed that the cancer immune therapy drug ipilimumab can prevent recurrence in patients whose melanoma shows high expression of immune-related genes. Patients who underwent genetic testing and were found out to have higher levels of expression of a group of immune-related genes, either before or soon after treatment with ipilimumab, have a 63% lower risk for recurrence of cancer after surgery.

You can read more about melanoma if you read our other articles on this site.