New discovery could lead to new treatments for other types of cancer.
Researchers believe they have found a key gene involved in Ferguson-Smith disease, otherwise known as multiple self-healing squamous epithelioma (MSSE), a skin cancer that grows rapidly but then a few weeks later, inexplicably, heals itself.
They believe that by finding out how the faults in the gene TGFBR1 cause the cancer and then subsequently heal it could give valuable insights into beating other types of tumor.
The TGFBR1 gene is involved in the making of a protein through which cells receive messages from their neighbours, instructing them to carry out jobs essential to growth and development.
But malignant cells interpret the “instructions” transmitted by TGFBR1 in two completely different ways, depending on the maturity of the tumour.
TGFBR1 initially acts as a “brake” preventing the growth of early tumours of various types but when cancers become more advanced and aggressive, their cells undergo a “signalling switch”.
In more advanced cancers, TGFBR1 promotes tumour growth and spread instead.
The reverse happens with MSSE which is caused by an inherited fault in the TGFBR1 gene.
Patients with faulty TGFBR1 develop lots of small tumours – but at some point there is a “switch” in behaviour and the tumours lacking TGFBR1 heal themselves.
Scientists do not yet understand how this happens.
The scientists, based at the University of Dundee, made the discovery after examining the DNA of more than 60 people with MSSE and 110 of their unaffected relatives.
Dr David Goudie, Cancer Research UK scientist at the university, said: “We hope that by shedding light on how one rare cancer manages to heal itself we’ll understand more about what goes wrong in other types of tumours.
Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information, Cancer Research UK, said: “This intriguing research provides an important insight into the various ways that cellular machinery can get messed up – which can then cause different types of cancer.
“This finding adds to thousands of discoveries being made by our world-class scientists every year.
“The pace of progress in cancer research is accelerating every year – enabling us to develop better ways to detect, monitor and treat the disease.
“This piece of research is another step – moving ever closer to our vision of beating cancer.”
The research is published in the journal Nature Genetics.
MSSE is very rare. Only a handful of new cases are diagnosed in the UK each year.