Be good to your skin, it’s the first line of defence

Skin cancer causes almost 160 deaths a year in Ireland, and can be much more difficult to treat than other cancers, so why do so many of us take risks with it?

Thu, Jul 3, 2014, 01:00


Identifying aggressive forms

The research led to a campus company, OncoMark Ltd, based at NovaUCD with Rafferty serving as chief executive and Gallagher as chief scientific officer. It is looking at melanoma but also cancers of the breast, prostate and colon.

“We are working in a research phase, working up some of those biomarkers to develop them into a clinical assay to identify those patients who have a more aggressive form,” she says.

The company employs 12 researchers and is involved in six ongoing international research projects funded through the EU.

More research into melanoma is under way at the college under Dr Markus Rehm, whose postdoctoral research fellow Dr Max Wuerstle describes the work. He is a computational biologist who uses mathematical models and computers to analyse data coming from melanoma drug trials and tissue culture tests.

For decades chemotherapy, and the drug dacarbazine, has been a standard treatment for melanoma, but many new drugs have emerged, says Wuerstle.

“I am looking for markers via modelling which will help us to identify patients who will respond to treatment and those who won’t. We hope the clinical data will help us predict for a given patient which treatment would work best,” he says.

He is funded via EU programmes.

For good advice on sun exposure, visit




Your skin is only 1mm or 2mm thick, but it provides a collection of life-saving services that protect us from the big bad world.

On the macro scale, skin prevents water loss from the body, something that can put a life at risk, for example in the event of large-scale burns. It also provides a barrier that keeps bacteria and other pathogens from breaking in to colonise tissues inside.

On the micro scale, fatty acids released at the skin’s surface are able to kill off some of these invaders. “The pH [acidity] of the skin is the very first line of defence,” says Prof Bryan Hennessy of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

It also provides other life-saving services. For example, nerve endings respond to heat, pain, cold, pressure and itch, which helps us to avoid damage to the skin and to ourselves.

One of the most important of these protective features at this time of year relates to sun exposure.

Skin has a built-in way of protecting itself against the damage caused to DNA by ultra-violet light through the release of a pigment, the stuff that tans your skin after sun exposure. It is also vital for temperature control. When the body gets too warm the sweat glands imbedded in it – at more than 50 per square centimetre – go into action, delivering perspiration that evaporates to cool the body.

Goose bumps provide the opposite function, helping to generate heat through the muscle contractions of the hairs in the skin. It is also self repairing, closing up cuts and punctures in its surface within days to ensure the barrier remains intact.

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