Research for skin cancer

Researchers around the world are looking at the causes, diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer.

Go to Cancer Research UK’s clinical trials database if you are looking for a trial for skin cancer in the UK. You need to talk to your specialist or GP if there are any trials that you think you might be able to take part in.

Research and clinical trials

All cancer treatments must be fully researched before they can be used for everyone. This is so we can be sure that:

  • they work
  • they work better than the treatments already available
  • they are safe

Research into causes of skin cancer


Researchers have been looking at gene changes that might cause skin cancer. They have been collecting blood and tissue samples from people with non melanoma skin cancer of the head and neck. They want to identify changes in genes that may have caused the cancer. They also want to find out how the body's immune system responds to the cancer.

Another trial has been looking at genes and cancers of the eyelid.

Stem cells

Researchers are looking at a type of cell called stem cells. Stem cells help keep normal skin healthy. Researchers have found stem cells in skin cancers. They think these cancer stem cells are responsible for cancer growth. So they want to learn more about them.

Risks and benefits of sunlight

One study looked at measuring the risks and benefits of exposure to sunlight. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun can cause damage to the skin cells and lead to skin cancer. But we need some sunlight for our bodies to make vitamin D. 

The research team found that even very low levels of ultraviolet radiation can increase vitamin D production and cause DNA damage, in all skin types. The level is well below the usual level that would cause sunburn. For light skin they found that DNA damage can happen in the upper and lower skin layers. But for dark skin it was only in the upper layers. This helps to explain the higher risk of skin cancer for people with light skin.

Research into diagnosing skin cancer

Researchers are looking at an artificial intelligence tool called DERM to see if it can diagnose skin cancers. The doctor photographs the suspected skin cancer using a smart phone camera with a special lens. The DERM tool examines the photographs to identify skin cancers. They compare the DERM tool findings with a specialist doctors opinion and results from taking skin samples (biopsies).

Researchers also want to find out whether using the DERM tool can reduce the number of unnecessary referrals to see a skin specialist or to have a biopsy.

Research into treatment

Researchers have looked at targeted cancer drugs and immunotherapy for skin cancer. These treatments work in different ways. For example, they can change the way cells signal to each other. Or they can stimulate the body to attack or control cancer cells. 

Researchers are looking at different types of targeted drugs and immunotherapies for skin cancers, including:

  • pazopanib
  • sonidegib

Researchers are also looking at a virus treatment for some cancers, including skin cancer. They have found a way to change the cold sore virus so it can target and destroy cancer cells. The changed virus is called RP1. They are studying RP1 on it's own, or together with an immunotherapy drug called nivolumab.