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Br J Cancer. 2006 Aug 21;95(4):496-505. Epub 2006 Aug 1.

Cellular senescence in naevi and immortalisation in melanoma: a role for p16?

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Division of Basic Medical Sciences, St George's, University of London, Cranmer Terrace, London SW17 0RE, UK.


Cellular senescence, the irreversible proliferative arrest seen in somatic cells after a limited number of divisions, is considered a crucial barrier to cancer, but direct evidence for this in vivo was lacking until recently. The best-known form of human cell senescence is attributed to telomere shortening and a DNA-damage response through p53 and p21. There is also a more rapid form of senescence, dependent on the p16-retinoblastoma pathway. p16 (CDKN2A) is a known melanoma susceptibility gene. Here, we use retrovirally mediated gene transfer to confirm that the normal form of senescence in cultured human melanocytes involves p16, since disruption of the p16/retinoblastoma pathway is required as well as telomerase activation for immortalisation. Expression (immunostaining) patterns of senescence mediators and markers in melanocytic lesions provide strong evidence that cell senescence occurs in benign melanocytic naevi (moles) in vivo and does not involve p53 or p21 upregulation, although p16 is widely expressed. In comparison, dysplastic naevi and early (radial growth-phase, RGP) melanomas show less p16 and some p53 and p21 immunostaining. All RGP melanomas expressed p21, suggesting areas of p53-mediated senescence, while most areas of advanced (vertical growth-phase) melanomas lacked both p16 and p21, implying escape from both forms of senescence (immortalisation). Moreover, nuclear p16 but not p21 expression can be induced in human melanocytes by oncogenic BRAF, as found in around 80% of naevi. We conclude that cell senescence can form a barrier to melanoma development. This also provides a potential explanation of why p16 is a melanoma suppressor gene.

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