Scientists have identified the role of skin cancer molecules and their role in hijacking healthy immune cells to help cancer spread and grow.

Experts believe by targeting these molecules with inhibiting drugs, aggressive skin cancer could be prevented from returning after treatment.

The findings of the Cancer Research UK-funded study were published in the journal Cell this week.

The research team from Queen Mary University of London examined cells from the edges of invasive melanomas in mice and human tumour samples, to investigate the effects of a protein they produce called Myosin II.

They found high levels of Myosin II in these cells not only made them more mobile, but also triggered the release of chemicals that reprogram the immune system.

The chemicals affect surrounding healthy immune cells, macrophages, and hijack their natural cancer-killing function.

Instead of attacking cancer cells, they transform to help them to survive – some even making tiny holes in blood vessels, allowing cancer cells to escape into the bloodstream and to new areas of the body.

Professor Vicky Sanz-Moreno, Cancer Research UK-funded lead author from Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London was optimistic the findings could aid in keeping patients cancer free post-treatment.

“This study highlights how cancer cells interact with and influence their surrounding environment to grow and spread. Developing treatments that target the chemicals that alter the immune system could help to prevent the spread of the disease,” she said.

Researchers also discovered one of the chemicals released by Myosin II-rich cells, interleukin 1A, made cancer cells more invasive. By blocking Myosin II activity with different drugs, they reduced the amount of interleukin 1A produced by melanoma cells in mice and human tumour samples.

“By using therapeutic drugs that block either Myosin II activity or the release of interleukin 1A, we can make the tumour less invasive and slow its growth, making it easier to treat,” Professor Sanz-Moreno said.

To read more about the findings, click here.