A new study may have uncovered a previously unknown way to fight melanoma, one of the most deadly forms of skin cancer. A team led by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine has identified a gene that, when disrupted with a drug compound, can prevent melanoma from developing.

Long-term exposure to ultraviolet light – usually sunlight – is the main cause of melanoma. When that light damages the DNA in skin cells, it can disrupt gene expression in ways that can let tumors spring up and grow.

Mutations in a gene known as NRAS are responsible for about a quarter of skin cancer cases, but in past work scientists haven't been able to find a way to deactivate it. So in the new work, the researchers looked further upstream, instead targeting proteins that trigger NRAS.

"There are immunotherapies and targeted therapies that have shown huge improvements for patients with melanoma," says Rutao Cui, lead researcher on the study. "However, for patients with NRAS mutations, they don't have very useful or very effective treatment strategies."

Previously it hasn't been known which protein might activate NRAS, but after testing a few the researchers identified the most likely candidate: STK19. Although the existence of this protein has been known for a while, exactly what it did remained a mystery.

Not only did the team discover that STK19 activates NRAS, they also found that it can be disabled. The researchers developed a drug compound that does just that, and tested it in animals and lab-grown skin cell cultures. Sure enough, in both scenarios the drug reduced activation of NRAS and prevented melanoma from taking hold.

The researchers say the next steps are to test out the compound in humans, with the eventual goal of getting it ready for clinical trials.

The research is published in the journal Cell.