Melanoma is the least common though most serious form of skin cancer. Most of the time, it can be caught early and cured with surgery. But when it spreads to other parts of the body, known as metastasis, it’s difficult to treat. American Cancer Society grantee Lisa Anne Taneyhill, PhD, is conducting research that could one day improve outcomes for advanced melanoma.
Her goal is to figure out what causes melanoma cells to break away from the original tumor and metastasize. To do this, she leads a team of scientists who study cells that contribute to skin coloration. These cells – called neural crest cells – eventually transform into skin pigment cells (melanocytes), which can then turn into melanoma if things go haywire.
We caught up with Taneyhill, an associate professor at the University of Maryland in College Park, to learn more about her research.
Q: Neural crest cells in 3 sentences. Go.
A: When neural crest cells are first “born,” they stay in a group and don’t move. Later on, when they receive certain signals from other cells, they detach from one another, leave their site of birth and migrate throughout the body. When they hit their final destination, they change into a new cell type and become what the body needs – like cartilage in your head or pigment in your skin.
Q: How does this relate to melanoma?
A: Melanoma is caused by cell division gone awry in skin cells known as melanocytes. Neural crest cells give rise to your melanocytes. As we age, or if our body is predisposed to it, those melanocytes can become melanoma. We’re trying to really understand how neural crest cells go from being stationary to migratory. Cancer cells also do that when they become invasive. We’re looking at melanoma because it can be highly invasive and because skin pigment cells come directly from neural crest cells.
Q: And the same things that make neural crest cells travel also make cancer cells travel?
A. Cancer cells can hijack a lot of the signals that tell neural crest cells to form and migrate. Cancer cells take the same “program” and “signals” that were originally used by the neural crest cells earlier in development, and use them to become a migratory, invasive cell.
Q: Now that we understand the neural crest-melanoma connection, what specifically are you researching?
A: We are looking at proteins called cadherins. Cadherins act like a molecular Velcro to hold neural crest cells together when they’re born. For them to unstick and migrate, certain enzymes act like scissors and cut the Velcro. We know how these enzymes work, and now we’re looking up the chain to try to find out what controls them.
Q: What aspect of your research is funded by an American Cancer Society grant?
A. One aim is to understand what controls these enzymes in neural crest cells, and to then see if it is the same thing that causes melanoma cells to travel to other parts of the body. This work will contribute to a better understanding of what causes melanoma to metastasize, and it also should be applicable to many cancers that become metastatic.