Looking at the dark stripes on the tiny zebrafish you might not expect that they hold a potentially important clue for discovering a treatment for the deadly skin disease melanoma. Yet melanocytes, the same cells that are responsible for the pigmentation of zebrafish stripes and for human skin color, are also where melanoma originates. Dr. Craig Ceol, assistant professor of molecular medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and collaborators at several institutions, used zebrafish to identify a new gene responsible for promoting melanoma. In a paper featured on the cover of the March 24 issue of Nature, Dr. Ceol and colleagues describe the melanoma-promoting gene SETDB1, which codes for a methyl transferase. "We've known for some time that there are a number of genes that are responsible for the promotion and growth of melanoma," said Dr. Ceol, who completed the research while a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Dr. Leonard Zon at Children's Hospital Boston. "With existing methods, it had been difficult to identify what those genes are. By developing the new approach described in this paper, we were able to isolate SETDB1 as one of those genes." Cases of melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer, have been on the rise in the United States: in 2009 alone, 68,000 new cases were diagnosed and 8,700 people died of the disease. Though it accounts for less than 5 percent of all skin cancers, it is responsible for the majority of deaths from skin cancers and has a poor prognosis when diagnosed in its advanced stages. Early signs of melanoma include changes to the shape or color of existing moles or the appearance of a new lump anywhere on the skin.
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