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Spotlight on… Melanoma

by Deen Kurrimbux

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. Its occurrence is high among North and North-western Caucasian males and females living in sunny climates. There is a direct correlation between geographical location, intensity of sunlight (in particular U.V.) and amount of skin pigmentation in the local population.

Melanomas develop from existing moles or when unrepaired DNA damage to skin cells trigger genetic defects that lead the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumours. Melanomas in appearance are usually black or brown, but can be pink, red or white. Melanomas differ from moles in that they are asymmetrical, have a variegated colour, are bigger than 6mm in diameter, and can be raised above the surface of the skin. If discovered early they can be surgically removed and thus are almost completely curable. However, if unchecked or ignored, its potential to metastasise (spread to other parts of the body) increases greatly and becomes much harder to treat and cure, possibly becoming fatal to the sufferer.

In addition to the aforementioned minor surgery, other treatments are available if the melanoma has failed to be excised sufficiently. Chemotherapy is used to actively destroy the rapidly multiplying cells, these can be in the form of oral or intra-venous administration. Another different approach to combating the cancerous growth is by using specialised drugs that prevent the formation of new blood vessels (anti-angiogenic) in proximity to the melanoma. This discourages the nourishment of the cells. It must be noted that this is an experimental protocol and is in need of refinement.

In more recent developments, immunotherapy (treatments based on the immune system) has been shown to be an effective way of combating melanoma. The principle method is vaccination. They work by stimulating the immune system so that it reacts more strongly against a patient's melanoma cells, destroying the cancer or slowing the progression. It must be noted that this vaccination is for sufferers with advanced melanomas. Another method of treatment is gene therapy. Genes are susceptible to damage and defect and when these occur, the code they express becomes corrupt which may result in a prolific and uncontrolled grown spurt of cells (cancer). Healthy undamaged genes, however can be used to rectify an existing condition, effectively redressing the balance. This treatment is, however, in its early stages and has yet to be proven effectively.

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The prevalence of skin disease exceeds that of obesity, hypertension, or cancer. Despite skin being the largest organ of the human body, dermatological research remains one of the most under funded areas of medicine. In a world where society has an increasing preoccupation with image and it’s importance to every aspect of a person’s life, sufferers of skin diseases are feeling and being more marginalised and isolated than ever.

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