Skin cell discovery could provide cancer insight

In collaboration with the Press Association

A new insight into the way our skin cells divide and replace themselves could help unravel how skin cancer develops, say Cambridge University scientists.

The findings could feed into research on what happens when cells go wrong and develop into skin cancer.

Previously, scientists believed that stem cells, the basic 'building blocks' of the human body, produced short-lived skin cells which rapidly stopped dividing and died off.

However, examining the process in mice revealed that stem cells play only a very small role in the process of skin replacing itself, only producing new cells once skin becomes damaged.

Instead, skin cells were shown to replace themselves. But instead of dividing into two fully functioning cells, these newly discovered 'progenitor' cells split into two non-uniforn cells - one carrying on dividing, while the other dies shortly afterwards - in the way stem cells had been presumed to behave.

"One of the implications of what we've seen is that these progenitor skin cells can potentially go bad and cause skin cancer if they linger long enough," lead researcher Dr Philip Jones told the BBC.

"Our ultimate goal though is to be able to model the evolution of cancer from the single cell stage onwards so we can find better ways to tackling the disease," said Dr Jones.

"By using the right gene to label the cells, this might just be possible."

The research was conducted by the MRC Cancer Unit and has been published in the journal Nature.