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THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN VITILIGO AND SKIN CANCER

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The relationship between vitiligo and skin cancer

 Posted on 12th December 2023  3 minute read

People living with vitiligo are three times less likely to develop skin cancer according to research published in the British Journal of Dermatology. A study carried out by researchers in The Netherlands has discovered that vitiligo patients have a threefold lower chance of developing both melanoma, the least common but deadliest type of cancer, and non-melanoma skin cancers, which are less dangerous but more common.

The scientists compared skin cancer rather in 1307 vitiligo patients, compared to 788 control subjects without vitiligo. They also examined other factors that might influence skin cancer development, such as sun exposure, number of sunburns in childhood, sun protective measures, outdoor work or hobbies and the individual’s number of moles, and these variables were factored into the results. Of these 1307 patients with vitiligo who answered the survey, seven (0.54%) had been diagnosed with melanoma during their lifetime. All melanomas had occurred in areas of skin not affected by the vitiligo. Of the 788 non-vitiligo controls, 12 individuals (1.53%) had been diagnosed with 14 melanomas. When the results were adjusted for other risk factors, vitiligo remaned associated with a threefold decreased likelihood of developing the skin cancer.

The results were similar for non-melanoma skin cancers (basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma). 30 of the vitiligo patients had been diagnosed with a total of 37 basal cell carcinomas  (BCCs) during their lifetimes. In addition, five patients with vitiligo had each been diagnosed with one squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and one patient had experienced one BCC and one SCC (a total of 44 non-melanoma skin cancers in 36 patients). In the control group, 47 or the 788 non-vitiligo volunteers had been diagnosed with a total of 61 BCCs, and four patients had suffered an SCC (a total of 65 non-melanoma skin cancers in 51 patients). When adjusted for all risk factors that wre significantly associated with non-melanoma skin cancer development in the analysis, patients with vitiligo had a threefold decreased probability of non-melanoma skin cancer.

Dr Hansje-Eva Teulings of the University of Amsterdam and one of the study’s authors sad: “We observed a significant threefold lower odds of melanoma during lifetime in vitiligo patients. The anti-melanocyte immune response in vitiligo, in which melanocytes are destroyed in the skin, may be responsible for the observed decrease in melanoma lifetime prevalence.

We also found that patients with vitiligo have a threefold decreased probability of developing non-melanoma skin cancer during their lifetime. This finding seems to be counterintuitive, as the lack of protective pigmentation is supposed to increase the risk of these cancers. The lower probability may relate to the observed decreased photo damage and increased levels of wild-type p53 expression in keratinocytes (skin cells) in patients with vitiligo. This is a tumour suppressor which may protect against UV damage and the development of keratinocyte cancer.”

Nina Goad of the British Association of Dermatologists said: “A very interesting aspect of this study is that no increased skin cancer prevalence was seen in phototherapy-treated patients compared with patients who had never undergone phototherapy. This differs from patients with another common skin condition, psoriasis, where long-term phototherapy treatment has been linked to an increased risk of some skin cancer. As phototherapy is one of the recommended treatments for vitiligo, this may prove a very positive finding.

Similarly, vitiligo patients may worry that their paler patches of skin are more likely to develop skin cancer, as it is generally known that people with fairer skin types are more at risk of the disease. However, this is not the case for skin that is affected by vitiligo. Vitiligo can have a strong psychological and emotional impact as it can be very visible, especially in darker skin types, so any research that eases the burden on these patients is most welcome.”

The pigment that gives skin its normal colour is melanin, which is made by cells called melanocyte. In patches of vitiligo the melanocytes are absent, and the reason for this is not fully understood. However, vitiligo is considered to be an autoimmune condition in which the body’s own immune system rejects some of its own tissues (melanocytes in the case of vitiligo). It affects men and women of all ethnicities equally.

About the Author

Alex Schneider

Alex was first diagnosed with Vitiligo when he was around 7 years old, and described how he spent the next decade of his life trying to find effective treatments.

Alex leverages this natural curiosity to help develop the Society’s network of associated specialist dermatologists/practitioners in the UK to help disseminate the latest research developments to the wider public.

Alex was first diagnosed with Vitiligo when he was around 7 years old, and described how he spent the next decade of his life trying to find effective treatments.

Alex leverages this natural curiosity to help develop the Society’s network of associated specialist dermatologists/practitioners in the UK to help disseminate the latest research developments to the wider public.