Caffeine Could Help in Some Types of Skin Cancer

According to a new study, caffeine helps kill off human cells damaged by ultraviolet light, one of the key triggers of several types of skin cancer.

Dr. Paul Nghiem, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of Washington in Seattle and lead researcher said, "We have found what we believe to be the mechanism by which caffeine is associated with decreased skin cancer."

The researchers said the study findings published in Feb. 26 online issue of the Journal of Investigative Dermatology could in the future result in the development of caffeine creams or ointments to help reverse the effects of UV damage in humans and prevent some skin cancers.

Non melanoma skin cancers, the most common form of skin cancers in humans rarely cause death and exposure to ultraviolet light is one of the most important factors in causing non melanoma cancers. This is as the rays result in DNA damage to skin cells, which then mutate or become cancerous. Several studies have previously linked caffeine consumption in either tea or coffee to lower incidences of non melanoma skin cancer.

In the study Nghiem's team examined the effect of caffeine on human skin cells in a laboratory that had been exposed to ultraviolet radiation. Caffeine was found to interrupt a protein called ATR-Chk1, in cells that were damaged by ultraviolet light causing them to self destruct.

In the case of normal cellular response, in the case of DNA damage they activate a protein ATR which helps start repair. In the case of damage by UV light some cells initiate a cell suicide which in effect keeps them from becoming cancerous. Caffeine seemed to stimulate more of the damaged cells into the suicide sequence called apoptosis.

Nghiem said when exposed to UV light only 1 out of 500 cells will undergo apoptosis while with the addition of caffeine the number goes to 1 out of 200. "Caffeine more than doubles the number of damaged cells that will die normally after a given dose of UV," he said.

"This is a biological mechanism that explains what we have been seeing for many years from the oral intake of caffeine," he added. However he adds that this does not mean that people should increase their consumption of tea and coffee. "We are by no means recommending that people change their beverage habits," Nghiem said.

A topical application of caffeine was more in tune with what the researchers felt could be the solution. Nghiem said, "Caffeine is both a sunscreen and it deletes damaged cells. It may well make sense to put it into a sunscreen preparation."

Dr. Albert Lefkovits, a spokesman for the Skin Cancer Foundation and an associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City said, "While this is an interesting concept that has been explored before, it will take years of extensive testing to determine whether this will be a worthwhile prevention method."

The new research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, a Harvard Skin Cancer SPORE Career Development Award, and Shiseido Corporation.

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