U Researchers Awarded $3.3 Million NCI Grant to Identify Melanoma Predisposition Genes

U Researchers Awarded $3.3 Million NCI Grant to Identify Melanoma Predisposition Genes

Sep 16, 2003 6:00 PM

Genes that predispose some people to melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, are being investigated by researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine under a $3.3 million grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The study will ultimately help in the development of screening and diagnostic tools.

The five-year grant was awarded in August by NCI, a part of the National Institutes of Health, to Lisa Cannon-Albright, Ph.D., professor of medical informatics and principal investigator; John J. Zone, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Dermatology; Nicola J. Camp, Ph.D., assistant professor of medical informatics; and Sancy A. Leachman, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of dermatology and director of the Tom C. Mathews Jr. Familial Melanoma Research Clinic at the University's Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI).

The study will build on research conducted 11 years ago by Cannon-Albright, Zone, and other U researchers that localized a gene believed responsible for an increased risk of melanoma. The gene, called p16, is often mutated and passed on within a family from generation to generation. This breakthrough study was the first definitive evidence that there is an inherited susceptibility to melanoma.

"While p16 helped us a lot in understanding familial melanoma, we found that it is mutated in only 25 percent of patients," said Cannon-Albright. "We believe there are other major genes contributing to melanoma. Our goal is to identify those genes."

Cannon-Albright said the present research also will investigate how predisposition genes interact with environmental factors, such as sun exposure.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 54,200 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma this year and some 7,600 people will die of skin cancer.

Melanoma develops in cells that produce melanin, the pigment that gives the skin its color. Melanoma can be deadly because it's more likely than other skin cancers to spread to different parts of the body. If caught early, however, it's almost entirely curable. Other common kinds of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Cannon-Albright said the study will involve hundreds of Utah families with a history of melanoma. "A big part of our success in the previous study can be attributed to the cooperation of local families," she said. "We feel incredibly lucky to be doing this study in Utah."

The research will utilize resources of the Utah Population Database to help investigators recruit high-risk melanoma pedigrees. The clinical aspect of the study will be conducted at HCI, in a specialty clinic devoted to studying the genetic causes and inheritance patterns of familial melanoma.

"What's amazing about this study is that it will bring together the clinical expertise at HCI with the school of medicine's genetic epidemiology expertise," said Leachman. "It is a unique and powerful collaboration."

Not every melanoma patient is qualified to participate in the study, but a patient with at least two blood relatives diagnosed with the same disease may register at HCI for possible participation. For more information, call Michelle Robinson, (801) 585-0595, or toll free, 866-378-4840.

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