Cases of malignant melanoma – a deadly form of skin cancer – have doubled over the past 20 years.
The main cause of skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light which comes from the sun, as well as sunbeds and sunlamps. UV light damages the skin's cellular DNA and produces genetic mutations that can lead to skin cancer.
There are two types of UV light. UVA (long wave) and UVB (short wave). Most research into skin cancer has looked at the effects of UVB on the skin. This is because it was once thought that only UVB could produce the type of genetic damage in the skin that leads to cancer.
UVA had not historically been linked to skin cancer. Recent research however has shown that this type of UV radiation can in fact induce cancer-causing damage to cells. Dr Sarah Allinson, a researcher at Lancaster University, has been researching the effects of UVA radiation on the skin for the past decade.
She began working on UV while she was a North West Cancer Research Fellow. The charity provided funding to Dr Allinson, and Professor Trevor McMillan, for a two-year research project, which investigated the effects of UVA on skin cells.
Their research showed that UVA does harm skin cells, but in a very different way to UVB. This needs to be taken into account when thinking about how to decrease our risk of skin cancer.
Following these findings, Dr Allinson was approached by high street retailer Boots, who provided funding to continue the project.
Boots is one of the UK’s biggest producers and retailers of sun creams. It has a particular interest in developing products that offer improved UVA protection. Despite the well-established negative effects of UVA, many sun creams do not provide adequate protection against it.
Thanks to this project, Dr Allinson and her team have identified new ways of measuring the cancer-causing effects of UVA on skin. This may help in the development of better sun-protection products.
Dr Allinson and her research team have helped put the dangers associated with UVA rays high on the public health agenda. She participated in North West Cancer Research’s “We need to talk about skin cancer event” in 2014. She has also helped advise the World Health Organisation on the UV Index. The main method used worldwide to communicate how much sun protection people need to use on a daily basis.
She says “Thanks to NWCR’s important funding of e early stages of this research, we have gained a new understanding of how UVA contributes to skin cancer. It’s very clear that we need to protect our skin from both UVA and UVB damage, if we are to radically decrease the number of people being diagnosed with skin cancer”.