CORVALLIS, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon State University researchers suggest a preventative skin cancer vaccine could be possible.

According to the university, a vaccine stimulating the production of a protein critical to the skin’s antioxidant network could help people bolster their defenses against skin cancer. Arup Indra, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at OSU, explained that the ultraviolet radiation from the sun leads to oxidative stress, which increases the risk of skin cancers such as melanoma.

“A messenger RNA vaccine, like the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for COVID-19, that promoted production of the protein, TR1, in skin cells could mitigate the risk of UV-induced cancers and other skin problems,” Indra explained.

OSU noted the findings of the research, in which Indra and collaborators used a mouse model to probe TR1’s role in skin cells’ health and stability, were published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

The Centers for Disease and Control Prevention lists skin cancer as the most common cancer in the United States. Most cases of skin cancer are linked to UV radiation exposure, according to the CDC.

“Melanoma, the most lethal type of skin cancer, is a form in which malignant cells form in skin cells known as melanocytes; melanocytes produce the pigment melanin, which determines skin color,” the university said. “People become tan from exposure to the sun or tanning beds because producing melanin is the body’s way of trying to protect the skin from burning.”

Despite efforts to improve public awareness about the warning signs of melanoma and the dangers of excessive exposure to UV radiation, Indra said, the incidence of melanoma continues to rise.

He added that researchers have looked at dietary antioxidants as a possible source of inexpensive and low-risk agents for cancer prevention for more than 40 years. However, they have not always performed well in clinical trials and in some cases have actually been harmful, according to OSU.

“TR1 is short for thioredoxin reductase 1. Reductase refers to an enzyme promoting a reduction reaction in which a chemical species gains electrons, usually as part of a ‘redox’ reaction in which another species undergoes oxidation, or the loss of electrons,” explained the university. “TR1 is a key component of melanocytes’ antioxidant system. Antioxidants offer protection from reactive oxygen species, or ROS, that are on the hunt for electrons from molecules in cells and can damage DNA.”

Researchers say that melanocytes are under ROS siege not only from the sun but also because the process of making pigment – melanogenesis — causes ROS to be produced too.

They added that by catalyzing the transfer of electrons, antioxidants work like an off switch for what would otherwise be a chain reaction affecting multiple molecules in melanocytes and other cells, thereby preventing oxidation.

“Messenger RNA vaccines work by instructing cells to make a particular protein. In the case of the coronavirus vaccines, it’s a harmless piece of the virus’ spike protein, which triggers an immune response; for the proposed melanoma vaccine, it would be TR1,” the university said.

As for the future of the possible vaccine, Indra said that everything needs to be tested and validated in preclinical models.

“We need to generate an mRNA vaccine, have it delivered locally or systematically and then monitor how it boosts the body’s defenses. Clearly, we’re at the tip of the iceberg but the possibilities are exciting for preventing different types of disease progression including cancer by modulating the bodies’ antioxidant system,” he said.

OSU scientists Gitali Ganguli-Indra, Evan Carpenter, Mark Wyant, Aaryan Indra and Gary Merrill were also involved with the study, which is supported by the National Institutes of Health and the College of Pharmacy.

Researchers from Oregon Health & Science University, the University of Utah and Japan’s Fujita Health University took part as well.