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Melanoma Risk Found to Have Genetic Determinant

September 18, 2014
Lebanon, NH

Answer found in protective cap of chromosomes

A leading Dartmouth researcher, working with The Melanoma Genetics Consortium, GenoMEL, an international research consortium, co-authored a paper published today in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that proves longer telomeres increase the risk of melanoma.

"For the first time, we have established that the genes controlling the length of these telomeres play a part in the risk of developing melanoma," said lead author of the study Mark Iles, PhD, School of Medicine at the University of Leeds (UK).

Telomeres are a part of the genome that function like the plastic caps of your shoelaces, which prevent the laces from fraying. Instead they protect the ends of chromosomes from environmental damage, such as exposure to smoke or sunlight, which can harm them. 

"Telomere length plays a key role in survival of cells and shorter telomere lengths are associated with aging and cardiovascular disease along with many cancers," said Christopher Amos, PhD, co-author and associate cancer center director for population sciences and interim deputy director at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center, Lebanon, NH.

The GenoMEL study, conducted at the University of Leeds, looked at 11,108 melanoma cases and 13,933 control cases from Europe, Israel, United States, and Australia. It is the largest study to date to trace the genetic basis of telomere length in melanoma. It evaluated seven known or suspected genetic variations (also called SNPS) in a genome wide associate study (GWAS).  It showed a strong association between telomere length and increased risk of melanoma.

"More research is needed to better understand the relationship between melanoma and telomeres, but learning more about how an individual's genetic telomere profile influences their risk of developing melanoma may help us. It will improve our understanding of melanoma biology and gives us a target towards developing potential treatments as well as potentially helping shape advice on what behavioral changes people might make," said Iles.

The research team created a score representing genetically-determined telomere length, based on all the established telomere associated genes and found that this score was associated with melanoma risk. The one in four people predicted to have the longest telomeres are at 30 percent increased risk of developing melanoma compared to those one in four predicted to have the shortest telomeres.

The explanation for why longer telomeres are connected to melanoma is not yet known. Researchers propose that having a longer telomere may delay a cellular aging process, which increases the likelihood cellular variation.  

"This research is important because it suggests that abnormal cell life span could play a key role in the development of melanomas and that agents targeting cell proliferation could be valuable for reducing melanoma growth," said Amos.

GenoMel is funded by Cancer Research UK, which also funded this specific study along with many other international groups.  United States funded was provided by NIH grants P50CA093459 and P30CA023108.

About Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock

Norris Cotton Cancer Center combines advanced cancer research at Dartmouth and the Geisel School of Medicine with patient-centered cancer care provided at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, at Dartmouth-Hitchcock regional locations in Manchester, Nashua, and Keene, NH, and St. Johnsbury, VT, and at 12 partner hospitals throughout New Hampshire and Vermont. It is one of 41 centers nationwide to earn the National Cancer Institute's "Comprehensive Cancer Center" designation. Learn more about Norris Cotton Cancer Center research, programs, and clinical trials online at cancer.dartmouth.edu.

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