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Going beyond skin-deep, to the molecular level

Annual Report - Annual Report - Winter 2014

By Katrina Burton

Kenneth Tsai didn’t develop a curiosity about the biology of skin until late in medical school.

What piqued his interest was realizing that every disease process plaguing the body also occurs in the skin — including genetic disorders; cancer; autoimmunity, inflammatory and infectious diseases; and interactions with environmental exposures.

“Like many people, I’ve had those close to me affected by cancer,” says Tsai, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor in MD Anderson’s Dermatology and Immunology departments. “Therefore, it’s an important problem to me personally, as well as a vexing problem scientifically.”

As a dermatologist and dermatopathologist, Tsai has set his sights on preventing squamous cell carcinoma — the second most common form of skin cancer in the United States — by closely monitoring its molecular progression from normal skin to precancerous lesions and eventually to skin cancer.

“Researchers are successfully using genomics to understand and treat metastatic cancers,” Tsai says. “I want to use this kind of approach to develop a new model of targeted therapies that will prevent or reverse the skin damage that ultimately leads to skin cancer.”

Tsai and his team examine matched samples from patients and couple this with work in mouse models to identify the most significant alterations in the genomes of cells as they progress from normal skin to invasive cancer. These alterations lead to molecular changes in damaged or precancerous cells that will serve as drug targets, thus enabling interventions designed to prevent further progression to cancer.

Tsai’s research originally was funded by a seed grant from the Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment within MD Anderson's Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences division.

“Molecularly targeted cancer prevention is quite feasible and achievable,” Tsai says. “If we can identify the molecular events that drive the progression of cancer, we can then target the right vulnerabilities to interrupt the progression sequence, stopping skin cancer in its tracks.”

Squamous cell carcinoma is …

Less common than basal cell carcinoma but can be more aggressive.

More likely to grow deep below the skin and spread to other parts of the body.

Caused by ultraviolet light exposure, mainly from the sun.

There are around 700,000 cases of squamous cell carcinoma diagnosed annually in the U.S.

Mysterious skin: Kenneth Tsai, M.D, Ph.D., became interested in skin because it’s where every disease process plaguing the body also occurs.

Reaping the awards: His work earned him the Landon Foundation-AACR INNOVATOR Award for Cancer Prevention Research, which is worth $100,000 over two years.

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