Breakthrough research may lead to sunscreens that prevent skin cancer

Mar 01, 2008, 5:00am

Using a gene-based sunscreen that can literally prevent your skin from developing non-melanoma skin cancer may sound a bit far-fetched. According to a recent breakthrough study, this is precisely what may be available to everyone world-wide, possibly making non-melanoma skin cancers a thing of the past.

Key Points

Birmingham, Ala. - Sunscreens are used widely to protect our skin from the insults of ultraviolet radiation. Aside from accelerating skin aging, cumulative ultraviolet radiation exposure is known to cause skin cancers.

Recent breakthrough research has shown that a gene-based sunscreen cannot only halt the progression of skin cancers and cause a regression in them, but can also prevent them from ever forming.

"The biggest tumor suppressor gene, known as p53, is mutated in almost 50 percent of all human cancers that occur throughout the world.

Dr. Athar and his team of researchers have experimented with chronic exposure to ultraviolet light while using this chemical on mice, and have discovered a compound that can be used in a sunscreen - a chemical agent that binds with mutant p53 protein and is converted into a wild type conformational protein.

According to Dr. Athar, this protein protects against any kind of genetic insult that can be caused by radiation, such as ultraviolet light or chemicals. If the gene is mutated, this protection is subsequently abolished.

"If you convert this mutated gene into wild type conformation, you can again restore the natural in situ protection in the genome that is provided by nature that affords protection against genotype insult.

"If we pharmacologically restore gene function in this gene-based approach, it can perhaps protect us against the insults of UV-induced skin cancer," Dr. Athar says.

He says that melanin protects the skin from ultraviolet-induced effects and, therefore, people of black or Asian background are less prone to develop nonmelanoma skin cancer.

In white populations, however, these cancers are very common, and mostly occur on sun-exposed areas. These nonmelanoma skin cancers are the most prevalent among all cancers in the world.

According to Dr. Athar, this sunscreen could be very effective; however, a battery of toxicological tests need to be performed first, followed by clinical trials in humans.

If the toxicological exams find that this chemical is not toxic to humans - which cannot be predicted beforehand - Dr. Athar says that may transform how we look at and treat skin cancers.

The timing of a possible sunscreen depends on the interest of pharmaceutical companies, as well as the willingness of physicians in clinics to put this formula to the test.

"Realistically, though, this may take a few years before we could see this sunscreen being available to patients," Dr. Athar says.

"We have tested under similar UV-inducing damage protocols to which humans are exposed, and have found that this chemical does not only stop the progression of skin cancers, but also causes a regression of these cancers, and can also impart a protection in the development of these cancers.

"I believe these results are very positive, and I think that this is the first study in randomized models of mice that demonstrates that skin cancer can be protected by controlling gene function," Dr. Athar says.