Researchers have discovered new insight into how melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, spreads — knowledge that could help speed the search for an effective treatment.

To better understand why the cancer cells attack other parts of the body, after consuming all of the oxygen and nutrients of the original site, researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) focused on a protein called hypoxia inducible factor 1 alpha (HIF1α). This protein is known to aid in the progression of other types of cancer.

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Their research led to the discovery of 40 new genes that are affected by HIF1α and 10 that were associated with travel time of melanoma to other regions of the body.

While only two percent of skin cancers are melanoma, it is the deadliest type, according to the NIH’s National Cancer Institute. Most of the cases are caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state.

The study, published in Pigment Cell and Melanoma Research, is an important finding because it provides insight into the development of personalized treatments.

“In many ways, melanoma is a poster child for precision medicine,” lead author Stacie Loftus, Ph.D., said in a press release. "Current therapies in clinical trials are focused on targeting genetic changes in tumors and helping to boost one's immune system to fight the cancer cells. Identifying how cells respond to their surrounding environment is important information that can be used to help guide treatment decisions for patients."

The current standard treatments for melanoma include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, and biological therapy, the NIH reports. Some of the risk factors for developing melanoma include fair skin, high lifetime exposure to natural sunlight and artificial light in places such as tanning beds, many common moles, and being Caucasian.

To reduce your risk of melanoma and other types of skin cancer, the Mayo Clinic recommends avoiding the sun during the middle of the day, wearing sunscreen year-round, wearing protective clothing, avoiding tanning beds, and becoming familiar with your skin so you can easily identify changes.

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