Promising new approaches to prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of malignant melanoma are currently being explored in the laboratory of Dr. Carmit Levy of the Department of Human Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry at Tel Aviv University in Israel. The cutting-edge research is supported by a grant from Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF). "We very much appreciate the support of the ICRF," says Levy. "Without it, I would not have been able to establish my new lab in Israel and generate valuable data that will be published soon." (The data was recently published online, ahead of print, by the Journal of Investigative Dermatology (J Invest Dermatol. 2013 Aug 9, doi:10.1038/jid:2013.340.)
Melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer, is responsible for approximately 80 percent of skin cancer deaths. Melanoma occurs in both younger and older people, although rates increase with age and are highest among those in their 80s. But it is also one of the more common cancers in young adults, especially young women.
Despite improved sunscreens, preventive educational efforts and recent advances in treatment options, the incidence of melanoma has risen over the past three decades in the United States more than that of any other cancer. In 2010, it was predicted that one in 50 patients in the U.S. would be diagnosed with melanoma by 2015. That number was already reached in 2012. According to the American Cancer Society, about 76,690 new melanomas will be diagnosed (45,060 in men and 31,630 in women) in 2013 and about 9,480 people (6,280 men and 3,200 women) will die from the disease.
Melanoma originates from a skin cell named melanocyte. Under normal conditions, melanocytes produce the pigment melanin and spreads it to other skin cells. Malignant transformation of melanocyte results in melanoma. Levy has previously studied the role of microRNAs (miRNAs)-small non-protein coding genes-in the development of melanocytes and their role in progression to melanoma. She found that a particular miRNA, miR-211, is down-regulated (decreases) in invasive melanoma cells, and that re-introducing it to those cells blocked their ability to spread, or metastasize.
In the present ICRF-funded study, Levy and her colleagues demonstrate that miR-211 contributes to melanoma adhesion (binding to another cell) by directly targeting a specific gene (NUAK1). Inhibition of miR-211 increased NUAK1 expression and decreased melanoma adhesion, whereas upregulation of miR-211 restored adhesion by repressing NUAK1. Thus, she concluded, "we have identified NUAK1 as a potential target for the treatment of metastatic melanoma. "Following our publication, I got an invitation from a researcher in Scotland to collaborate and try drugs he had developed to target the NUAK1 pathway. We are excited by the therapeutic opportunity, although much more needs to be done," commented Levy.
ICRF is a nationwide charitable organization founded in 1975 by a group of American and Canadian researchers, oncologists, and lay people determined to harness Israel's educational and scientific resources in the fight against cancer. ICRF is the largest U.S.-based charity solely devoted to supporting cancer research in Israel and receives its total income from private donations.
Born in Jerusalem, Levy established her lab at Tel-Aviv University in 2011 after completing post-doctoral studies at Harvard Medical School in Boston. She began her academic career at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, where she received a B.A. in biology, followed by a M.Sc. in pharmacology and PhD in Biochemistry.