by Sharon Beder
Up to this stage Mason and her colleagues have been quite fortunate with funds. The State Cancer Council been the main source of support for the project and other funding for equipment has come from the Leo and Jenny Leukemia and Cancer Research Fund. The Sydney University Cancer Research Group has also provided funds to look at the interaction between the cells and the basement membrane and the NH & MRC has provided funds for some of the more general studies. We have been quite fortunate, says Mason. All of these funds are subject to renewal and that is always a worry but the projects have been going well so that we hope that that will be taken into consideration.
The pigment cell work in general has been going for about 6 years but this particular project, looking at the effects of UV, has only been going for a couple of years. One of the impetuses for this work is the depletion of the ozone layer. The Australian population, with its generally light coloured skin, can not even cope with the amount of UV that is around at the moment, yet the ozone depletion is going to make things worse. The educational campaigns have had some effect from the point of view of prevention, particularly in getting people to seek medical advice about suspicious looking skin lesions, but something more is urgently required.
The reason that ozone depletion will make things considerably worse is, as Mason has shown with her work, that the UVB component of sunlight has potential for doing far greater damage to skin cell function than the UVA component, and in a much shorter space of time. And it is particularly the UVB component, especially the shorter wavelengths, that will be let through with the depletion of ozone. So even a small decrease in ozone will let some of the shorter wavelengths through and you don't need much of an increase in that kind of radiation to really cause havoc with people’s skin. So the problem, that at an earlier stage was merely difficult, has now become absolutely potentially disastrous, says Mason.
Mason feels that her research is beginning to produce some answers. But she warns that past experience with other research tells us that there is likely to be a significant lead time between discovering what these substances are, that are produced in skin as a result of UV, and actually producing something that may be marketable or that may be available for human use. Of course, if the factors involved in theses responses turn out to be substances known to act in other tissues, the commercial prospects become more limited.
Much of the work relies on students and research assistants. In some instances the researchers have originally been employed as research assistants but because the work lends itself to higher degree studies they go on to enrol as well.