Eczema may offer clues to skin cancer prevention

In collaboration with the Press Association
Skin cancer cells

The way the immune system reacts to eczema could offer protection against skin cancer, new research suggests.

“At the moment these are early studies, so more work will be needed to show whether conditions like eczema have the same protective effect in people" - Dr Emma Smith, Cancer Research UK

Scientists at King's College London found the immune response triggered by the skin condition reduced the number of tumours in mice by causing cancerous cells to be shed from the skin, rather than developing into tumours.

Dr Emma Smith, senior science communications officer at Cancer Research UK – which part-funded the study – cautioned that the research was still in its early stages, and more work will be needed to see whether eczema also has the same protective effect in people.

To mimic the condition in the lab, researchers specially bred mice to lack three particular molecules that help make up the skin’s natural barrier - similar to the defects found in people with eczema.

Researchers then compared the effects of two chemicals that encourage tumour formation in these mice.

They found that the number of benign tumours each mouse developed was six times lower in those lacking the skin barrier molecules, compared to mice with normal skin.

Both groups of mice were equally susceptible to genetic faults caused by the chemicals, but exaggerated inflammation processes in the specially bred mice led to them shedding potentially cancerous cells from their skin.

“Understanding more about the biology underpinning eczema and other allergic conditions could potentially lead to new ways to treat cancer by boosting the immune system to fight the disease,” Dr Smith said.

Previous studies have suggested eczema is linked with a reduced risk of skin cancer but it has been difficult to prove because symptoms vary and drugs used to treat the condition might also influence cancer.

The new study is the first to suggest that eczema could actually protect against skin cancer, something that will need confirming in further studies.

Professor Fiona Watt, director of the centre for stem cells and regenerative medicine at King's College London and senior author on the study, said the findings support the idea that modifying the body’s immune system could be an important route to treating cancer

The new study was funded by the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK, and published in the journal eLife.

Copyright Press Association 2014 

References

  • Cipolat S, et al. (2014). Epidermal barrier defects link atopic dermatitis with altered skin cancer susceptibility, eLife, eLife 2014;3:e01888 DOI: