There May Be a Way to Stop Melanoma Before It Begins

Boston Children's researchers watched cancer develop in zebra fish, from the very first cell.

A group of Boston Children’s Hospital researchers just accomplished a medical first: watching melanoma develop, starting from the very first cell.

“An important mystery has been why some cells in the body already have mutations seen in cancer, but do not yet fully behave like the cancer,” said the paper’s first author, Charles Kaufman, in a statement. With the release of this study, that mystery is on its way to being solved—and promising cancer treatments could be next.

Kaufman and his team engineered zebra fish so that an individual cell would turn fluorescent green if crestin, a gene that effectively takes mature cells back to stem cell, or embryonic, state, was activated. Donning goggles and shooting video on his iPhone, Kaufman watched the fish to see when green spots appeared.

Every single time a cell flashed green, the researchers found, it eventually developed into a melanoma tumor.

This finding is big, because it shows that the presence of oncogenes—genes that push healthy cells to turn cancerous—and the silencing of tumor suppressor genes may not be what ultimately catalyzes cancer; instead, it looks as though heightened oncogenes and decreased tumor suppressors “prime” cells for cancer, while going back to embryonic state actually starts the cancer development process. In layman’s terms: It appears that oncogenes and tumor suppressors are the prequel, while a reversion to embryonic state is the main event.

Believe it or not, the researchers say that zebra fish and humans actually develop melanoma quite similarly—which means that their discovery could translate to a better understanding of the origins of cancer in humans. Eventually, it could even help doctors target at-risk genes before melanoma ever develops.

“The turning on of this set of genes…could be a new way of diagnosing a mole to be malignant,” says senior investigator Leonard Zon in an accompanying video, above. “In addition, it’s possible to develop a therapeutic, such as a cream, that could stop those genes from every being expressed, and this would lead to, ultimately, a cure—stopping cancer before it even begins.”