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New research, the findings of which now appear in the journal Cell, has found a mechanism that allows aggressive forms of skin cancer to become invasive and spread quickly.

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The study, which nonprofit organization Cancer Research UK funded, was conducted by a team from King’s College London and Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), both in the U.K.

In their experiment, they analyzed the makeup of skin cancer, or melanoma, cells, looking for the factors that work to their advantage.

They found that such cancer cells release certain molecules that interact with the immune system, sending out signals that favor the growth and spread of tumors.

In the future, the researchers hope that their new discovery will allow scientists to come up with better strategies for targeting aggressive melanoma and preventing a relapse.

A complex signaling mechanism

The research team looked both at melanoma tumor samples collected from human patients as well as mouse models of this form of cancer.

The investigation revealed that skin cancer’s aggressiveness is largely due to the presence of the protein myosin II in large quantities within cancer cells.

Myosin II contributes to cell motility, meaning that it helps cells move around; thus, high levels of this protein allow cancer cells to become more mobile and spread around the body quicker.

However, the researchers also found that myosin II stimulates the secretion of substances that send out signals to the immune system, “telling” it to bypass cancer cells.

More specifically, these substances “speak” to macrophages. These are specialized immune cells that normally consume and eliminate foreign bodies, malfunctioning cells, and cellular debris.

When these macrophages receive the signals from the melanoma cells — due to the action of myosin II — this “programs” them to avoid attacking cancer tumors, letting them grow and spread freely.

Symptoms and warning signs

Basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma are two examples of nonmelanoma skin cancer.

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The U.S-based Skin Cancer Foundation says that everyone should examine their whole body, from head to toe, once a month, and take note of:

  • any new moles or growths
  • moles or growths that have grown
  • moles or growths that have changed significantly in another way
  • lesions that change, itch, bleed or have not healed

The most common sign of skin cancer is an abnormal pink or brown spot, patch, or mole.

There are different forms of skin cancer, and the most common are:

  • basal cell carcinoma
  • squamous cell carcinoma
  • melanoma

Melanoma is the type most likely to develop in a mole.

Enlarged lymph nodes can also signal skin cancer. Lymph nodes are small, bean-sized collections of immune cells beneath the skin. Many are in the neck, groin, and underarms.

How to spot basal and squamous cell skin cancers

Basal and squamous cell skin cancers are more common and not as dangerous as melanoma. They can develop anywhere, but they are most likely to form on the face, head, or neck.

A basal cell carcinoma may look like:

  • a flat, firm, pale or yellow area of skin, similar to a scar
  • a reddish, raised, sometimes itchy patch of skin
  • small shiny, pearly, pink or red translucent bumps, which can have blue, brown, or black areas.
  • pink growths that have raised edges and a lower center, and abnormal blood vessels may spread from the growth like the spokes of a wheel
  • open sores that may ooze or crust, and either do not heal or heal and return

A squamous cell carcinoma may look like:

  • a rough or scaly red patch that may crust or bleed
  • a raised growth or lump, sometimes with a lower center
  • open sores that may ooze or crust, and either do not heal or heal and return
  • a growth that looks like a wart

Not all skin cancers look alike. The American Cancer Society recommend that a person should contact a doctor if they notice:

  • a mark that does not look like others on the body
  • a sore that does not heal
  • redness or new swelling outside the border of a mole
  • itching, pain, or tenderness in a mole
  • oozing, scaliness, or bleeding in a mole

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