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Skin cancer research

Men and woman discussing skin cancer

This page of the non melanoma skin cancer section is about research into the causes, prevention and treatments of skin cancer. You can find the following information


A quick guide to what's on this page

Skin cancer research

All treatments must be fully researched before they can be adopted as standard treatment for everyone. This is so that we can be sure they work better than the treatments we already use. And so we know that they are safe.

First, treatments are developed and tested in laboratories. Then, only once we know that they are safe to test are they tested in people. This is done in clinical trials. Cancer Research UK supports a lot of UK laboratory research into cancer and also supports many UK and international clinical trials.

Researchers are looking into

  • Preventing skin cancers
  • Learning about the genetics of skin cancers to help develop new treatments
  • Biological therapies to treat skin cancer


CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the treating skin cancer section.



Why we need research

All treatments have to be fully researched before they can be adopted as standard treatment for everyone. This is so that

  • We can be sure they work
  • We can be sure they work better than the treatments that are available at the moment
  • They are known to be safe

The research process

First, treatments are developed and tested in laboratories. For ethical and safety reasons, experimental treatments must be tested in the laboratory before they can be tried in people. If a treatment described here is said to be at the laboratory stage of research, it is not ready for patients and is not available either within or outside the NHS. Cancer Research UK supports a lot of UK laboratory research into cancer.

Tests in patients are called clinical trials. Cancer Research UK supports many UK and international clinical trials.

Our trials and research section has information about what trials are including information about the 4 phases of clinical trials. If you are interested in taking part in a clinical trial, visit our searchable database of clinical trials recruiting in the UK. As non melanoma skin cancer can be relatively easy to treat and cure, there tend to be few clinical trials in skin cancer. If there is a trial you are interested in, print it off and take it to your own specialist. If the trial is suitable for you, your doctor will need to make the referral to the research team. The database also has information about closed trials and trial results.

Here is a video on experiences of taking part in a clinical trial:

View a transcript of the video (Opens in a new window) 


Preventing skin cancer

Most skin cancers are preventable. If we can find a way to successfully educate people not to go out in the sun without protection we could prevent the majority of skin cancers.

Late in 2002, the UK Health Departments commissioned Cancer Research UK to run a national skin cancer prevention awareness campaign. The campaign called Sunsmart, was launched in March 2003. Sunsmart continues to provide a long term sun awareness campaign.

Look in the about skin cancer section for lots of information about how to protect your skin from the sun. You can also get information on the Sunsmart website.

One study is looking at a new way of measuring the risks and benefits of exposure to sunlight. Ultraviolet radiation from sunlight can cause damage to skin cells, which can lead to skin cancer. But sunlight is necessary as we need it for our bodies to make vitamin D. Researchers need to find a way of measuring markers that show skin damage. This study is looking at volunteers with all different skin types. The researchers hope to answer a number of questions including what the lowest amount of ultraviolet radiation is that increases skin damage markers and how much vitamin D is made. This study has now closed and we are waiting for the results.



Retinoids are chemicals similar to vitamin A. Tretinoin is a type of retinoid sometimes used to treat actinic (solar) keratosis. It can be put on to the affected area in a cream. It works by encouraging the abnormal cells to mature into normal cells.

Acitretin is another retinoid that may be given in tablet form to people who have repeated skin cancers, for example people who have had an organ transplant and have a weakened immune system. Acitretin may help prevent new skin cancers from forming. 

These drugs do have side effects. They can cause redness and skin peeling. This usually settles down within a couple of days. You should not

  • Go out in the sun whilst you are having this treatment as your skin may be more sensitive to sunlight
  • Have retinoid treatment if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant because it can cause severe birth defects
  • Give blood while you are having retinoid treatment as your blood could be given to a pregnant woman

Research is continuing to find out the best type and dose of retinoid to prevent new skin cancers developing.



Scientists know that the ultraviolet light from the sun damages your DNA. These changes in your DNA cause normal skin cells to become cancerous. Scientists are using this information to research and develop new treatments for skin cancers.

A study is looking into the genetic changes that cause skin cancer. The researchers are collecting samples of tissue and blood from people diagnosed with melanoma and non melanoma skin cancer of the head and neck. They will use these samples to identify changes in genes that may have caused the cancer, and to identify how the body's immune system responds to the cancer.

Another study is looking at the genetics of skin cancers of the eyelid. The researchers are looking at genes in the cells of tissue samples to find out why people develop cancers of the eyelid, why some cancers come back very quickly after treatment, and if they can develop better treatments. This study has now closed and we are waiting for the results.


Biological therapy

Biological therapies are treatments that act on processes in cancer cells. They can work in different ways, such as changing the way cells signal to each other or by stimulating the body to attack or control cancer cells. Research is looking into biological therapies for skin cancer. There are trials testing

Imiquimod (Aldara)

Imiquimod cream (Aldara) is a new treatment which has been approved to treat the most common type of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma (BCC). The cream stimulates the immune system to attack the cancer. Studies have shown it may be of great benefit to people with small, early stage BCC. It has not been approved for nodular BCC yet.

The SINS trial looked at imiquimod cream compared to surgery for BCC. The trial team found that although imiquimod had good results, it didn't work as well as surgery for BCC. The people who took part all rated the cosmetic appearance of either imiquimod or surgery as good or excellent. Doctors who specialise in skin conditions (dermatologists) looked at pictures of the treatment areas and favoured the appearance of those treated with imiquimod. The trial team concluded that surgery remained the best treatment for BCC. But imiquimod cream might still be a useful treatment for some small BCC's, particularly when considering factors such as the number of tumours and where they are on the body, and patient preference. There is more information about imiquimod cream in this section.


The BOLT trial  has now closed to recruitment and we are awaiting results. It is looking at a biological therapy drug called LDE225 for basal cell skin cancer that has spread. BCC usually grows slowly, and rarely spreads. If BCC does spread the usual treatment is surgery or radiotherapy. But sometimes surgery or radiotherapy are not possible. Researchers want to find out if LDE225 is a helpful treatment in this situation. LDE225 is a new drug that blocks a specific protein and stops cancer cells from sending growth signals. Researchers hope that it will stop the BCC growing or shrink it.


Pazopanib is a type of cancer growth blocker. It stops signals that cancer cells use to divide and grow. The UKMCC-01 trial is looking at pazopanib for a rare type of skin cancer called merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) that has spread. This trial has now closed and we are waiting for the results.


Researchers have found that some cancers have a change in a particular chemical process within the cancer cells. This process is called the hedgehog pathway (HH pathway). Researchers have found that most basal cell skin cancers have a change in this pathway. This change switches on a signal to make the cells become cancerous and grow much more quickly than usual. Vismodegib aims to block the signal within cells so the cancer stops growing. Trials are looking into how well vismodegib works for advanced basal cell cancers and to find out more about the side effects.



Diclofenac is an anti inflammatory drug, which you can have in a gel. It has been looked at for the treatment of actinic (solar) keratosis. The results of 2 studies have shown some response to this treatment. These studies used the diclofenac gel for different lengths of time, one for 60 days another for 90 days. Doctors don't fully understand how it works, or how well it works and further research is needed.

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Updated: 25 September 2014