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Exp Dermatol. 2009 Nov;18(11):934-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0625.2009.00933.x. Epub 2009 Jul 23.

Why do melanomas get so dark?

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Department of Dermatology, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT 06520-8059, USA.


Cutaneous malignant melanomas often exhibit pigmented regions that are darker than the surrounding skin. While melanoma cells are the original source of the melanin, keratinocytes and melanophages also contribute to the tumor colour because they contain melanin obtained from melanoma cells. However, little is known of the origin of darkly pigmented melanoma cells or of the molecular pathways regulating their melanin production. Here we discuss observations that dark melanoma cells emerge from within populations of melanoma in situ and that, in addition to producing abundant dark pigment, they appear to be undergoing autophagy. Moreover, autophagy appears to be a common trait of invasive melanoma cells in the dermis. The underlying cause of this phenomenon may stem from aberrant production of glycosylation structures known as beta1,6-branched oligosaccharides. Our studies of dark cutaneous melanomas were prompted by analyses of experimental mouse macrophage-melanoma hybrids fused in the laboratory. Like melanoma cells in cutaneous malignant melanoma, experimental hybrids also displayed abundant dark pigment and autophagy, and had high levels of beta1,6-branched oligosaccharides. Whether or not darkly pigmented malignant melanoma cells originate from fusion with macrophages in vivo remains to be determined. In any event, pigmentation in melanoma, long considered as a secondary aspect of the malignancy, may be a visible warning that the cells have gained competence for invasion and metastasis.

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