Molecular Genetics of Melanoma Progression

Abstract

Cutaneous melanoma is a deadly skin cancer that affects over 200 000 people worldwide each year. Progression from a normal melanocyte to a metastatic melanoma typically occurs in a step‐wise manner, where each stage results from the de‐regulation of certain cell signalling pathways. Cellular senescence is known to play a critical role in melanoma suppression, and genes encoding proteins responsible for cell senescence are commonly mutated in somatic cases of the disease. Germline mutations in these genes can also be found in individuals with familial melanoma. Nonetheless, cutaneous melanoma is not a homogeneous disease, and various sub‐types exist, each displaying variations in certain mutational signatures. Advances in sequencing technologies have allowed researchers to categorise melanoma sub‐types with more precision, as well as to identify novel recurrent gene mutations, which may lead to the development of more personalised therapies in the future.

Key Concepts

  • Mutational clonal evolution of melanoma can be correlated with histopathological lesion types.
  • Oncogenic mutations in MAPK pathway components are the only identified mutations in benign naevi.
  • Benign naevi are in an arrested state called senescence, which must be bypassed for melanoma progression.
  • TERT promoter mutations are common in melanoma and can emerge in dysplastic naevi, although expression of TERT is not sufficient to confer immortality.
  • Invasive melanomas evolve mechanisms to bypass apoptosis, often through excessive PI3K‐AKT signalling.
  • Metastatic melanomas are usually immortal, typically through gain of TERT expression and defects of the p16 pathway.
  • Mutations in familial melanoma genes commonly result in a lengthening of melanocyte proliferative lifespan.

Keywords: melanocyte; cellular senescence; benign naevi; dysplastic naevi; RGP melanoma; VGP melanoma

Figure 1. Model for melanoma progression. In the corresponding genetic model, each successive category typically shows a further genetic or epigenetic change, in pathways mentioned in more detail in the text. Black and red shapes represent naevus and melanoma cells, respectively. Benign naevus cells are relatively uniform in shape and size, whereas dysplastic naevus and melanoma cells are often atypical. Dysplastic naevus and RGP (radial growth phase) melanoma cells are localised to the epidermis (yellow) and papillary dermis (upper blue section), whereas benign naevus and VGP (vertical growth phase) melanoma cells can migrate into the reticular dermis (lower blue section).
Figure 2. Cell signalling pathways commonly altered in melanoma. Proteins coloured red show activating oncogenic mutations in melanoma, while those coloured blue normally act as tumour suppressors and mutations found in melanoma cause defects or deletions. Proteins where mutations have not been found so far in melanoma are uncoloured. See text for more details. ETS transcription factors can only up‐regulate TERT if a promoter mutation occurs, represented as TERT*.
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Kohli, Jaskaren S, and Bennett, Dorothy C(Sep 2017) Molecular Genetics of Melanoma Progression. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027340]