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Potential vaccine for rare killer skin cancer

Researchers have taken the first steps towards understanding why a rare skin cancer that is rapidly increasing in incidence in Europe and the USA is not recognized by the body’s immune system.

Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) arises from the uncontrolled growth of skin cells and usually develops on sun-exposed areas as a firm, painless, red bump that grows over several weeks to months. The condition typically develops in people aged 65 and over and those with weakened immune systems, and there are currently approximately 1500 cases a year with one-third of these proving fatal.

During recent research, around 80 per cent of MCCs on human skin were shown to contain a virus termed Merkel cell polyomavirus, which is believed to be associated with the growth of this cancer. Now, Leeds-based scientists (funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research) plan to introduce the genetic material of this virus into normal human skin cells to produce skin cells that have features of MCC cancers.

The scientists will use these synthetic MCC cancer cells along with real MCC cells from patient samples to analyse the reactions of human immune cells against them. They ultimately hope to increase current knowledge about the human body’s ability to eliminate MCC cancer cells to help develop a vaccine in the future.

Professor Eric Blair, who is leading the project, said: ‘Since a virus is involved in the development of Merkel cell carcinoma skin cancer, it is important to understand how the virus prevents the immune system attacking the MCC tumour.

‘We are aiming to develop strategies to prevent or eradicate tumours and improve the prognosis of patients who suffer with this terrible skin disease which is currently extremely poor.’

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Pharmacology/ Therapeutics


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