Scientists uncover how cancer stem cells are regulated in common skin cancer

In collaboration with the Press Association

Belgian scientists have discovered that a molecule already targeted by several cancer therapies may play a crucial role in a common form of skin cancer.

The work could spark research into new ways to prevent and treat the disease.

Previous studies suggest that squamous cell skin cancer, like several other types of cancer, contains cells known as cancer stem cells, which are able to continually grow and divide to sustain the growth of tumours.

Squamous cell skin carcinoma is the second-most common form of non-melanoma skin cancer, affecting approximately 10,000 people per year in the UK. Although not as serious as melanoma, it can still spread if left untreated.

The latest study, published in the journal Nature, looked at the activity of a molecule called VEGF in controlling cancer stem cells in the skin. VEGF is known to regulate the growth of new blood vessels - a process known as angiogenesis - by activating a second group of proteins, known as VEGF receptors (VEGFR).

Researchers have already developed several drugs that target this process in cancer patients, with the intention of cutting off the tumour's nutrient supply.

In this latest research in mice, the researchers blocked the activity of VEGF receptors by using an antibody, and found that this not only slowed down blood vessel growth, but also stopped skin cancer stem cells from growing, causing tumours to shrink.

The researchers followed this up by genetically removing VEGF from the skin cancer stem cells and found that this created a defect in their ability to multiply, also causing tumours to shrink.

Researcher Benjamin Beck said: "It was extremely exciting to see the complete disappearance of these tumours only two weeks after the treatment."

The study also found that a VEGF receptor called Neuropilin , or Nrp1, has a crucial role in controlling the growth of cancer stem cells and the formation and growth of tumours.

Oliver Childs, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: "This is a great example of why high-quality laboratory work to understand the inner working of cancer cells is vital if we're to beat cancer.

"By uncovering a new way that VEGF works in squamous cell skin cancer, this study opens up the possibility of new ways to prevent and treat this cancer. There's a long way to go before any new treatment is available, but this kind of lab work is laying the foundation for tomorrow's cancer drugs."

Copyright Press Association 2011


  • Beck, B. et al (2011). A vascular niche and a VEGF–Nrp1 loop regulate the initiation and stemness of skin tumours Nature, 478 (7369), 399-403 DOI: 10.1038/nature10525