Scientists have discovered a set of genes that enable melanoma cells to quickly shift between two shapes in order to escape from the skin and spread around the body.

This new discovery about the way melanoma spreads could provide a pathway for scientists to develop much needed drugs for malignant melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer.

Melanoma kills around 2,200 people every year in the UK.

It is known for its ability to spread to other parts of the body in the later stages of disease, most notably the liver, lungs and brain.

Wellcome Trust research fellow at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, Dr Chris Bakal explained; "We already knew that metastatic melanoma cells have to be able to adopt different shapes so that they can squeeze their way between healthy cells and move around the body.

"Until now, we knew hardly anything about how the cells assume either of these shapes and how they switch between the two."

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Scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, (ICR) and Weill Cornell Medical College, Houston, found that human melanoma cells behaved similarly to fruit fly cells that grow in five different shapes and can be manipulated by switching off specific genes.

In human melanoma cells the scientists noted that switching off a gene called PTEN increased the proportion of cells that were elongated rather than rounded.

PTEN is a gene that is also involved in stopping healthy cells from becoming cancer cells, a so-called ‘tumour suppressor’ gene.

This PTEN gene is switched off in around 1 in 8 melanoma patients and in almost half of melanoma patients who carry a mutation in another cancer gene called BRAF.

"We think that metastatic melanoma cells lose their PTEN function so that they can increase their shape-shifting ability, which in turn enables them to move to many different tissues within the body.

"It’s early days, but taken together our findings offer new opportunities to develop drugs to try and stop the spread of melanoma," Bakal added.

Cancer Research UK senior science communications manager Dr Julie Sharp said; "This is still early research, but it gives us a better grasp of the way cancer cells behave in the body. By mimicking these conditions, our researchers are learning more about melanoma and bringing us closer to beating it."

This new research was funded by the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK and the US National Institutes of Health. Full details of the study were published in the journal Nature Cell Biology.

Image: Melanoma kills around 2,200 people every year in the UK.