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Scientists Discover New Skin Color Gene

Research with zebrafish could help fight against melanoma, study suggests

THURSDAY, Dec. 15, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- A discovery that at first glance seems to be at the most basic level of genetic research might someday be used to prevent or help cure one of the deadliest human cancers -- melanoma.

Scientists studying zebrafish have found a gene that can make them change their stripes. That is, a mutation in the gene changes the color of those stripes.

While much more research is needed, the finding could help in the fight against melanoma, said Dr. Keith C. Cheng, an associate professor of pathology at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. He is leader of the research effort that appears in the Dec. 16 issue of Science.

According to Cheng, there's "a variation of this particular gene [that] helps determine the lighter skin color of the European population," compared to Africans and certain Asians.

And people of European descent, including those living in America, often want to make their skin fashionably darker by sunbathing. But doing so makes them more likely to develop melanoma, the dangerous and potentially fatal skin cancer whose incidence is rising as more people spend more time absorbing ultraviolet radiation from sunlight.

So there may be some practical applications for this basic research, Cheng said.

"One is that this gene may become a target for development of safer ways to make skin lighter or darker," he said. Instead of going to the beach or a suntan parlor, someone could use a lotion or pill that would prompt the gene to change skin color.

"And possibly this gene might serve as an immunotherapy target for human malignant melanoma," Cheng said. Immunology is not his field, he stressed, but since the gene is active in melanoma cells, "my friends in the field tell me that you might be able to develop cells that recognize antigens [proteins produced by the gene] and generate cells that kill cells that express that protein."

That's a satisfying possibility for someone whose animal of choice for experiments is a little-known fish. Cheng has been studying zebrafish -- in depth and at length -- for a decade. The paper reporting the gene discovery lists 25 authors, whose locations range from Hershey, Pa., to Salt Lake City to Denton, Texas, to Dublin, Ireland.

"This was a 10-year project, and many people came in and out of my lab," said Cheng, who added that he continues his exploration of the fish.

More information

The National Library of Medicine has more on melanoma and other skin cancers.

SOURCES: Keith C. Cheng, M.D., Ph.D, associate professor, pathology, Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, Hershey; Dec. 16, 2005, Science
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