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Some Skin Cancer May Be Mediated by Primary Cilia Activity

By Jennifer O'Brien, UCSF News Office | August 24, 2009

Tiny, solitary spikes that stick out of nearly every cell in the body play a central role in a type of skin cancer, new research has found. The discovery in mice shows that the microscopic structures known as primary cilia can either suppress or promote this skin cancer, depending on the mutation triggering the disease.

The finding suggests that drugs that boost or block primary cilia activity could offer a new strategy against cancer.

Unlike the more familiar motile cilia, primary cilia do not move, and only one pokes out of each cell. They have recently been discovered to play an essential role in assuring normal embryological development.

The new study focused on basal cell carcinoma, the most common cancer in the United States. It is published in the August 23, 2009 advanced online issue of "Nature Medicine." A companion article in the same issue reports a similar discovery regarding a type of brain tumor in children known as medulloblastoma.

The two studies were led by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, and they are the first demonstrations that primary cilia are required for some kinds of cancer. They are also the first reports that these cilia can protrude from cancer cells, as they do from most normal cells.

If the basal cell carcinoma finding is confirmed in people, the discovery raises the possibility of new cancer treatment strategies, said Jeremy Reiter, MD, PhD, senior author of that paper. Reiter is assistant professor of biochemistry and biophysics, an investigator at the Cardiovascular Research Institute, the Diabetes Center and the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF. In July, President Obama named him as a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for his research on the links between cilia and cancer.

Read more at Jennifer O'Brien, UCSF News Office