Discovering Why More Men Than Women Get Skin Cancer
“Even if you take into account that men spend more time out in the sun, for example, on construction jobs, and also factor in that they’re less likely to use sunscreen, it’s still a higher rate,” said Craig Burd, PhD, Department of Molecular Genetics, The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).
This is the all-important question Dr. Burd, with funding from a Pelotonia Idea Grant, is trying to answer. And, he thinks he and his lab and research partners at the OSUCCC – James are on the right track, and that estrogen is the key.
“There are indications that hormones may be driving this,” said Dr. Burd. “Specifically, estrogen, which could have a protective role for women that men don’t necessarily have.”
The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that 87,100 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma this year. Of this total, 52,170 are men, and 34,940 are women. The ACS also estimates that 9,730 people will die from melanoma: 6,380 men and 3,350 women.
“Our idea is that estrogen (the primary female sex hormone) works on a couple of different proteins in the body,” Dr. Burd said.
The “our” he refers to is his wife, Christin Burd, PhD, Molecular Biology and Cancer Genetics at the OSUCCC – James and a collaborator on the Pelotonia Idea Grant research. Dr. Craig Burd specializes in hormones and how they relate to breast cancer, while Dr. Christin Burd’s area of expertise and research is melanoma.
“We talk a lot and share ideas at dinner and on the drive into work,” Dr. Craig Burd said of how the idea to look at estrogen’s role in melanoma took shape. Their Pelotonia Idea Grant research seems to be a perfect blend of their areas of research, and another example of how the collaboration between different labs at the OSUCCC – James so often leads to advances in research.
Many cases of melanoma begin with moles that contain a cancer-promoting oncogene. “The NRAS genetic mutation is present in about 30 percent of melanoma cases,” Dr. Craig Burd said, adding that exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) seems to be another factor in “activating” mutations in the NRAS mutation.
Proteins in the NRAS mutation that impact melanoma are the estrogen receptors (ERs) alpha and beta, which are common in breast cancer, Dr. Craig Burd said. These estrogen receptors are activated by estrogen.
“The ER alpha appears to promote cancer, but the ER beta could be an inhibitor of cancer,” Dr. Craig Burd said, adding there has been some preliminary research on the impact of the ER beta at cancer centers around the country. Men do have estrogen in their bodies, but much less than women and “women have a lot more circulating estrogen in their bodies … and that could inhibit the progression toward cancer.”
Finding one of the causes of melanoma is an important step forward in the prevention and treatment of this deadly disease.
“That’s still a long way down the road, but it’s always important to keep the end goal in sight, and that’s prevention,” Dr. Craig Burd said. “If we can identify the factors that lead to melanoma and better protect people from this, that’s the end goal. It could be, for example, putting new additives in sunscreen that activate your ER beta.”
The Burds will each ride the 50-mile route in Pelotonia 2017, and plan to do more when their son, Timothy, 7, grows up. “When Timothy is older, we’ll have more time to train and maybe then we can both do the 100-mile Pelotonia route,” Dr. Craig Burd said of another of the couple’s longer-term goals.
Curiosity and the desire to take on challenges is what drives the Burds.
“A driving factor is to take on a question that interests you, one that nobody has ever asked before, and try and answer it,” Dr. Craig Burd said. “This is the job where you can do that. And, working in cancer research, hopefully we’re changing lives. Those are the rewards and why we do this.”