FOR forty years, it has left scientists baffled. Now, researchers have finally uncovered the secret behind a rare skin cancer that can heal itself. They hope the breakthrough will lead to new treatments for other cancers. Known as the multiple self-healing squamous epithelioma (MSSE), the skin cancer grows rapidly for a few weeks before healing itself spontaneously. Scientists have now discovered that this happens because of the failure of a gene – the Transforming Growth Factor (Beta), Receptor 1 (TGFBR1).
The breakthrough was made by an international research team which included researchers from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s Institute of Medical Biology in Singapore. Their findings, published yesterday in the journal Nature Genetics, will help researchers understand and predict the effects of cancer treatment drugs.
Dr David Goudie, a clinical genetics consultant at Britain’s Dundee University, said: “Understanding how tumours that lack TGFBR1 behave will surely help us to predict the clinical effects of drugs that target these cancer-promoting or cancer-inhibiting signals.” The TGFBR1 gene sends instruction to cells promoting normal growth and development. When sent to cancer tumours, it will promote the spread of cancer instead. But in MSSE cancer tumours, the gene is faulty, so it makes the tumours shrink and heal by themselves.
Team leader Birgit Lane, executive director of IMB, cautioned against blocking the function of the gene indiscriminately, even though it is implicated in other cancers. This is because the TGFBR1 is essential for many normal processes.