Are women less susceptible to some skin cancers?

Women may have a stronger immune response to a common form of skin cancer than men, according to early research on mice and human cells. Led by University of Manchester scientists at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, the team publish their findings in Clinical Cancer Research.

Men have more skin squamous cell carcinoma (cSCC) than females and their tumours are more aggressive. It is not clear if this is linked to more exposure to sunlight.

This study used animals to explore this question. It found male mice developed more aggressive tumours than females, despite receiving identical treatments. Immune cell infiltration and gene expression related to the anti-cancer immune system were increased in female mouse skin and tumours, suggesting a protective effect of the immune system.

In keeping with the animal study, 931 patient records collected from four hospitals in Manchester, London and France, the researchers identified that while women commonly have a more mild form of cSCC compared to men, immunocompromised women develop cSCC in a way more similar to men, which suggests the protective effect of their immune system may have been compromised.

The results in human patients were confirmed in a further cohort of sun-damaged skin from the US. In this cohort, human epidermal cells confirmed women’s skin activated immune-cancer fighting pathways and immune cells at sites damaged by sunlight.

Furthermore, the USA cohort showed two types of human T Cells – CD4 and CD8- which are important in our immune response to skin cancer- were twice as abundant in women as in men.

“It has long been assumed that men are at higher risk of getting non-melanoma skin cancer than women” said Dr Amaya Viros, from The University of Manchester. “Other life-style and behavioural differences between men, such as the type of work or exposure to the sun are  likely to be significant. However, we also identify for the first time the possible biological reasons, rooted in the immune system, which explains why men may have more severe disease. Although this is early research, we believe the immune response is sex-biased in the most common form of skin cancer, and highlights that female immunity may offer greater protection than male immunity.”

Dr Samuel Godfrey, Research Information Manager at Cancer Research UK said: “Research like this chips away at the huge question of why people respond to cancer differently. Knowing more about what drives immune responses to cancer could give rise to new treatment options and show us a different perspective on preventing skin cancer.”

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