Estrogen Receptors Linked to Increased Melanoma Survival

Cancer is Sexist! Part Deux
Kathryn E. Vinson, MS, CCRC

In Cancer is Sexist, we talked about how ladies are less likely to develop cancer than men. With this being the first week of summer, I wanted to take a look at skin cancer. I was surprised to find out that we ladies have increased rates of survival in melanoma as well, with some really fascinating research happening.  Let’s talk about melanoma in general, then take a look at what this new research shows.

Melanoma basics

We know that melanoma is a cancer that develops in the melanocytes – the cells in our skin that produce melanin.  Melanin helps give our skin its beautiful array of colors and also the freckles that some of us love (I’m speaking as a very freckled girl). When we are exposed to sunlight, our melanocytes are stimulated to produce more melanin – giving us a sun tan.  While many of us love that sun kissed look, too much tanning is known to be a leading cause of melanoma.  Worse, just one sunburn every two years can triple your risk of developing melanoma.  Tanning bed or direct sun – they both can cause melanoma.

The best preventative for melanoma and other skin cancers, is of course, protection from the sun. UVA and UVB rays both cause damage to our skin on different levels, and both can be protected against.  The American Cancer Society recommends utilizing clothing, hats, sunscreen, and sunglasses to protect ourselves against these damaging UV rays. Please be sure to check your sunscreens for expiration dates, sun protection factor (SPF), and the spectrum of UV rays for which it protects.

Although skin cancers are the most common forms of cancer, melanoma is rare in that subset, accounting for only 1% of diagnoses.  Conversely, it accounts for the most deaths due to a skin cancer.  The American Cancer Society estimates that over 91,000 new melanomas will be diagnosed in 2018, breaking down to roughly 55,000 in men and 36,000 in women, with mortality rates at about 10% of those numbers.  Here we clearly see the gender bias towards men.   With that being said – if you see a suspicious looking mole – get in and get it checked – early detection is key!

The new research

Christopher Natale, Todd Ridky, and their colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine studied estrogen receptors as a possible key to understanding the increased protection against melanoma to women that have and have not been pregnant.  He states that the medical field has seen this protection for decades but hasn’t quite understood the reasoning. Their research showed that there is a receptor on melanocytes that is activated by estrogen.  This may make some sense when you think about the darkened pigmentation that many pregnant women experience – the increased estrogen of pregnancy is causing the melanocytes to become more active, thus producing more melanin.

So, when melanoma is present, these same estrogen receptors can activate a pathway that causes differentiation within the tumor, making it more visible to our immune systems.  This is another way of helping our immune systems to be able to fight cancers within our own bodies.

In mouse studies, when given a compound now known only as G-1 (a compound that activates those estrogen receptors on the melanocytes) in addition to anti-PD-1 inhibitors, tumors disappeared in half of the animals studied, and lives were prolonged.   What is important here, is that when the mice were given the anti-PD-1 inhibitors without the G-1 – the tumors did not disappear, and survival was extended only moderately.

What is really cool about this research, is that the authors believe this is the first time a treatment is being developed that involves activation of a cellular process, rather than inhibition. As this receptor is found in other organs, the researchers state that this could open up an entire new path of studying potential treatments, not just in melanoma, but other tumor types as well.

If you or a loved one have been stricken by this devastating disease, take a look at our page dedication to Melanoma Cancer support groups.  There are a lot of great folks out there that are working to help people just like you!

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