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Melanoma: A Disease of Aging
Ben Leach
Ashani Weeraratna, Ph.D.

Skin changes caused by aging can affect not only what’s seen on the surface, but also the architecture of the underneath layers and the microenvironment surrounding melanoma, where tumor cells coexist with normal cells, immune cells, and blood vessels.

Ashani Weeraratna, Ph.D., a leading expert in melanoma research, discussed aging and cancer to a full house at The Wistar Institute’s second Women and Science program, which started last year. The goal: to provide a forum to discuss the crucial role that basic and clinical research play in addressing the scientific challenges related to women’s health.

Wistar’s Women and Science program is also an opportunity to showcase and promote the role of women scientists in a field that is still afflicted by gender imbalance. Helen Pudlin, Esq., Chair of the Board of Trustees of The Wistar Institute, highlighted in her opening remarks that Wistar has been going against this prevailing trend throughout its history, being a proponent of women scientists: Helen Dean King, Wistar’s first female scientist, started working at the Institute in 1909 and today nearly half of Wistar’s scientists are women – Weeraratna one of them.

Melanoma, even more than other cancer types, is a “disease of aging,” whose incidence increases and whose outcome worsens with age, says Weeraratna, Ira Brind Associate Professor and program leader of the Tumor Microenvironment and Metastasis Program at Wistar. She shared her latest research on how changes that occur in the skin architecture over time affect the melanoma microenvironment. This suggests the structural changes that make the skin wrinkle also allow melanoma cells to invade deeper through the skin layers and ultimately spread to distant sites.

The Weeraratna laboratory is working to identify new therapeutic options for elderly melanoma patients. Until then, the best thing we can do to decrease our risk of developing melanoma is to protect our skin from the major risk factors: sun exposure and cigarette use and smoke.

Beyond Weeraratna’s work in the field of melanoma research, she also drove home the point that women scientists are making huge strides in science and that opening up opportunities to women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields significantly enriches the biomedical research enterprise. 

Learn more about Wistar’s upcoming Women and Science program: