Does Eczema reduce Skin Cancer Risk?

Immune response triggered by eczema due to defects in the skin could help prevent skin cancer formation by shedding potentially cancerous cells from the skin, according to research from King’s College London.

Ongoing debate surrounds allergies and their impact on the chances of developing cancer. Some studies suggest eczema is associated with a reduced risk of skin cancer. This study is the first to show that allergy caused by the skin defects may in fact protect against skin cancer.

Skin cancer accounts for one in every three cancers diagnosed worldwide, says the World Health Organization. Malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, is five times more common now in the UK than it was in the 1970s, recent findings imply.

Eczema Skin Defects

Eczema can develop from the loss of structural proteins in the outermost layers of the skin, which leads to a flawed skin barrier. In the study, mice genetically engineered to lack three skin barrier proteins were used to duplicate some of the skin defects found in eczema sufferers.

The research team compared the effects of two cancer-causing chemicals in normal mice and mice with the skin barrier defect. The number of benign tumours per mouse was six times lower in knock-out mice than in normal mice.

‘We are excited by our findings as they establish a clear link between cancer susceptibility and an allergic skin condition in our experimental model,” said Professor Fiona Watt. “They also support the view that modifying the body’s immune system is an important strategy in treating cancer. I hope our study provides some small consolation to eczema sufferers – that this uncomfortable skin condition may actually be beneficial in some circumstances.”

These findings point to the possibility that defects in the epidermal barrier protected the genetically engineered mice against benign tumor formation.

Although both types of mice were equally susceptible to cancer causing mutations, an inflated inflammatory reaction in the genetically engineered mice led to improved shedding of potentially cancerous cells from the skin. This cancer-protective mechanism bears similarities to that which protects skin from environmental assaults such as bacteria.

Reference:

Epidermal barrier defects link atopic dermatitis with altered skin cancer susceptibility
Sara Cipolat, Esther Hoste, Ken Natsuga, Sven R Quist, Fiona M Watt
eLife 2014;3:e01888 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.01888

Mouse skin tumor cross section image courtesy King’s College London

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