Scientists’ breakthrough uncovers new genetic risk for deadly skin cancer

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Buffers guarding against damage to the ends of chromosomes could hold the key to a better understanding the deadliest form of skin cancer, scientists in Yorkshire say.

Experts at Leeds University say their work uncovers an important new genetic risk factor for melanoma.

Paler people at risk of burning in the sun are known to be at most risk of the condition but researchers say the length of telomeres, regions at the end of every chromosome that protect against DNA damage when cells are replicated, are also at higher risk.

Mark Iles, who led the research funded by the charity Cancer Research UK, said: “Telomeres have been described as being like the plastic tips on shoelaces that protect the shoelace from fraying, just as telomeres protect chromosomes from degrading or fusing to one another. 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.”

Meanwhile a new drug dabrafenib for patients testing positive for a specific melanoma cancer cell mutation has been approved for the NHS provided it is made available at a discount.

It is recommended for patients whose cancer has spread or cannot be completely removed, whose treatment options have been limited until recent years.

Prof Paul Workman, of The Institute of Cancer Research in London, which played a key part in the discovery of the drug, said: “Its approval underlines the importance of a new generation of cancer drugs targeted at specific molecular features of tumours - drugs which after years of painstaking development are now making their way to patients.”

Malignant melanoma is the fifth most common UK cancer, causing around 2,200 deaths a year.