BRINGING SKIN CANCER BACK INTO THE FOLD
This week [Nature, Vol. 406, Issue 6799, 31 August 2000, pp. 1005-1009], Philip A. Beachy of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Maryland, and colleagues describe how they exploited the results of an epidemiological investigation of malformed sheep to identify a compound that may be effective in treating basal-cell skin carcinomas - the most common form of human cancer.
The compound 'cyclopamine', from the lily plant, is known to interfere with the development of the central nervous system in sheep embryos. The 'Hedgehog pathway' - a signal transduction cascade of interacting proteins - is very important in early neural development. The same pathway is also believed to be inappropriately activated in skin cancers.
Beachy's team showed that, in vitro at least, cyclopamine seems to switch off the Hedgehog pathway in basal-cell carcinoma cells, halting their growth and reversing some of their malignant characteristics.
"Treating basal-cell carcinomas with cyclopamine might be predicted to suppress the development of tumour cells and perhaps retard their growth, but not necessarily to kill them," cautions Allen E. Bale of Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut, in an accompanying News and Views article (p. 944). "If this drug then progresses to clinical trials," Bale notes, "investigators would be wise to remember its source, and to avoid women of child-bearing age in their studies."
Philip A. Beachy
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Allen E. Bale
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