Sunscreen: More Like Body Armor


By Ashley Peterson

With summer just around the corner, there will be plenty of opportunities to get out and soak up those rays. But while you are enjoying these longer days of fun in the sun, your skin may be left vulnerable to the damaging effects of the sun's harmful UV rays.

Due in large part to extensive exposure to the sun, it is estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of their lifetime. Currently, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States with more than 3.5 million cases being diagnosed each year.

You have heard the warnings and know that sunscreen is your best bet when it comes to protecting your skin from the sun. But is it enough?

A Bright Outlook...

Thanks to a scientific breakthrough by an Australian team of researchers, it is possible that within the next five years, our coconut-scented sun protections will pack an even more powerful punch. Research is now shedding new light that sunscreens might someday prevent or even treat skin cancer by reversing dangerous skin mutations caused by overexposure to the sun.

Led by Professor Stephen Jane and Dr. Charbel Darido of Monash University's Department of Medicine at the Alfred Hospital, the researchers discovered a gene that helps protect the body from squamous cell cancer (SCC) of the skin, the second-most prevalent form of skin cancer in the U.S. Until now, the genetic basis for SCC has not been well-understood by scientists, leaving surgery as the only option for treatment.

The identified gene, Grhl3, acts as a "stop signal" for SCC and was virtually absent from every SCC tumor that was studied. The loss of this gene turns off the signal to stop skin cells from growing. Without this signal, the cells keep increasing in number and eventually form a cancer. This important discovery provides researchers a clear direction for developing strategies for both prevention and treatment in the not-too-distant future.

Identifying this "stop signal" for the growth and spread of cancer is a breakthrough that will hopefully pave the way for speedy development of new prevention and treatment strategies. In the meantime, don't skip the sunscreen and reapply often!

Classroom Discussion

  • Do you think cancer-preventing sunscreen will be available to the public within the next five years? What are some potential challenges that might hinder the development process?
  • Can you think of any other genetic discoveries that have profoundly impacted medical/scientific research?