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Genetics of Skin Cancer (PDQ®)


[Note: Many of the medical and scientific terms used in this summary are found in the NCI Dictionary of Genetics Terms. When a linked term is clicked, the definition will appear in a separate window.]

[Note: Many of the genes described in this summary are found in the Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM) database. When OMIM appears after a gene name or the name of a condition, click on OMIM for a link to more information.]

Structure of the Skin

The genetics of skin cancer is an extremely broad topic. There are more than 100 types of tumors that are clinically apparent on the skin; many of these are known to have familial components, either in isolation or as part of a syndrome with other features. This is, in part, because the skin itself is a complex organ made up of multiple cell types. Furthermore, many of these cell types can undergo malignant transformation at various points in their differentiation, leading to tumors with distinct histology and dramatically different biological behaviors, such as squamous cell cancer (SCC) and basal cell cancer (BCC). These have been called nonmelanoma skin cancers or keratinocytic cancers.

Figure 1 is a simple diagram of normal skin structure. It also indicates the major cell types that are normally found in each compartment. Broadly speaking, there are two large compartments—the avascular cellular epidermis and the vascular dermis—with many cell types distributed in a largely acellular matrix.[1]

Schematic representation of normal skin; drawing shows normal skin anatomy, including the epidermis, dermis, hair follicles, sweat glands, hair shafts, veins, arteries, fatty tissue, nerves, lymph vessels, oil glands, and subcutaneous tissue. The pullout shows a close-up of the squamous cell and basal cell layers of the epidermis, the basement membrane in between the epidermis and dermis, and the dermis with blood vessels. Melanin is shown in the cells. A melanocyte is shown in the layer of basal cells at the deepest part of the epidermis.
Figure 1. Schematic representation of normal skin. The relatively avascular epidermis houses basal cell keratinocytes and squamous epithelial keratinocytes, the source cells for BCC and SCC, respectively. Melanocytes are also present in normal skin and serve as the source cell for melanoma. The separation between epidermis and dermis occurs at the basement membrane zone, located just inferior to the basal cell keratinocytes.

The outer layer or epidermis is made primarily of keratinocytes but has several other minor cell populations. The bottom layer is formed of basal keratinocytes abutting the basement membrane. The basement membrane is formed from products of keratinocytes and dermal fibroblasts, such as collagen and laminin, and is an important anatomical and functional structure. As the basal keratinocytes divide and differentiate, they lose contact with the basement membrane and form the spinous cell layer, the granular cell layer, and the keratinized outer layer or stratum corneum.

The true cytologic origin of BCC remains in question. BCC and basal cell keratinocytes share many histologic similarities, as is reflected in the name. Alternatively, the outer root sheath cells of the hair follicle have also been proposed as the cell of origin for BCC.[2] This is suggested by the fact that BCCs occur predominantly on hair-bearing skin. BCCs rarely metastasize but can invade tissue locally or regionally, sometimes following along nerves. A tendency for superficial necrosis has resulted in the name "rodent ulcer."[3]

Some debate remains about the origin of SCC; however, these cancers are likely derived from epidermal stem cells associated with the hair follicle.[4] A variety of tissues, such as lung and uterine cervix, can give rise to SCC, and this cancer has somewhat differing behavior depending on its source. Even in cancer derived from the skin, SCC from different anatomic locations can have moderately differing aggressiveness; for example, SCC from glabrous (smooth, hairless) skin has a lower metastatic rate than SCC arising from the vermillion border of the lip or from scars.[3]

Additionally, in the epidermal compartment, melanocytes distribute singly along the basement membrane and can transform into melanoma. Melanocytes are derived from neural crest cells and migrate to the epidermal compartment near the eighth week of gestational age. Langerhans cells, or dendritic cells, are a third cell type in the epidermis and have a primary function of antigen presentation. These cells reside in the skin for an extended time and respond to different stimuli, such as ultraviolet radiation or topical steroids, which cause them to migrate out of the skin.[5]

The dermis is largely composed of an extracellular matrix. Prominent cell types in this compartment are fibroblasts, endothelial cells, and transient immune system cells. When transformed, fibroblasts form fibrosarcomas and endothelial cells form angiosarcomas, Kaposi sarcoma, and other vascular tumors. There are a number of immune cell types that move in and out of the skin to blood vessels and lymphatics; these include mast cells, lymphocytes, mononuclear cells, histiocytes, and granulocytes. These cells can increase in number in inflammatory diseases and can form tumors within the skin. For example, urticaria pigmentosa is a condition that arises from mast cells and is occasionally associated with mast cell leukemia; cutaneous T-cell lymphoma is often confined to the skin throughout its course. Overall, 10% of leukemias and lymphomas have prominent expression in the skin.[6]

Epidermal appendages are also found in the dermal compartment. These are derivatives of the epidermal keratinocytes, such as hair follicles, sweat glands, and the sebaceous glands associated with the hair follicles. These structures are generally formed in the first and second trimesters of fetal development. These can form a large variety of benign or malignant tumors with diverse biological behaviors. Several of these tumors are associated with familial syndromes. Overall, there are dozens of different histological subtypes of these tumors associated with individual components of the adnexal structures.[7]

Finally, the subcutis is a layer that extends below the dermis with varying depth, depending on the anatomic location. This deeper boundary can include muscle, fascia, bone, or cartilage. The subcutis can be affected by inflammatory conditions such as panniculitis and malignancies such as liposarcoma.[8]

These compartments give rise to their own malignancies but are also the region of immediate adjacent spread of localized skin cancers from other compartments. The boundaries of each skin compartment are used to define the staging of skin cancers. For example, an in situ melanoma is confined to the epidermis. Once the cancer crosses the basement membrane into the dermis, it is invasive. Internal malignancies also commonly metastasize to the skin. The dermis and subcutis are the most common locations, but the epidermis can also be involved in conditions such as Pagetoid breast cancer.

Function of the Skin

The skin has a wide variety of functions. First, the skin is an important barrier preventing extensive water and temperature loss and providing protection against minor abrasions. These functions can be aberrantly regulated in cancer. For example, in the erythroderma associated with advanced cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, alterations in the regulations of body temperature can result in profound heat loss. Second, the skin has important adaptive and innate immunity functions. In adaptive immunity, antigen-presenting cells engender a TH1, TH2, and TH17 response.[9] In innate immunity, the immune system produces numerous peptides with antibacterial and antifungal capacity. Consequently, even small breaks in the skin can lead to infection. The skin-associated lymphoid tissue is one of the largest arms of the immune system. It may also be important in immune surveillance against cancer. Immunosuppression, which occurs during organ transplant, is a significant risk factor for skin cancer. The skin is significant for communication through facial expression and hand movements. Unfortunately, areas of specialized function, such as the area around the eyes and ears, are common places for cancer to occur. Even small cancers in these areas can lead to reconstructive challenges and have significant cosmetic and social ramifications.[1]

Clinical Presentation of Skin Cancers

While the appearance of any one skin cancer can vary, there are general physical presentations that can be used in screening. BCCs most commonly have a pearly rim (see Figure 3) or can appear somewhat eczematous. They often ulcerate (see Figure 3). SCCs frequently have a thick keratin top layer (see Figure 4). Both BCCs and SCCs are associated with a history of sun-damaged skin. Melanomas are characterized by asymmetry, border irregularity, color variation, a diameter of more than 6 mm, and evolution (ABCDE criteria). (Refer to What Does Melanoma Look Like? on NCI's Web site for more information about the ABCDE criteria.) Photographs representing typical clinical presentations of these cancers are shown below.

Basal cell carcinomas

Photographs showing a pink, scaly lesion on the skin (left panel) and flesh-colored nodules on the skin (right panel).
Figure 2. Superficial basal cell carcinoma (left panel) and nodular basal cell carcinoma (right panel).

Photographs showing a red, ulcerated lesion on the skin of the face (left panel) and a red, ulcerated lesion surrounded by a white border on the skin of the back of the right ear (right panel).

Figure 3. Ulcerated basal cell carcinoma (left panel) and ulcerated basal cell carcinoma with characteristic pearly rim (right panel).

Squamous cell carcinomas

Photographs showing a pink, raised lesion on the skin of the face (left panel) and on the skin of the leg (right panel).
Figure 4. Squamous cell carcinoma on the face with thick keratin top layer (left panel) and squamous cell carcinoma on the leg (right panel).


Photographs showing a brown lesion with a large and irregular border on the skin (panel 1); large, asymmetrical, red and brown lesions on the skin (panels 2 and 3); and an asymmetrical, brown lesion on the skin on the bottom of the foot (panel 4).
Figure 5. Melanomas with characteristic asymmetry, border irregularity, color variation, and large diameter.


  1. Vandergriff TW, Bergstresser PR: Anatomy and physiology. In: Bolognia JL, Jorizzo JL, Schaffer JV: Dermatology. 3rd ed. [Philadelphia, Pa]: Elsevier Saunders, 2012, pp 43-54.
  2. Schirren CG, Rütten A, Kaudewitz P, et al.: Trichoblastoma and basal cell carcinoma are neoplasms with follicular differentiation sharing the same profile of cytokeratin intermediate filaments. Am J Dermatopathol 19 (4): 341-50, 1997. [PUBMED Abstract]
  3. Soyer HP, Rigel DS, Wurm EM: Actinic keratosis, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. In: Bolognia JL, Jorizzo JL, Schaffer JV: Dermatology. 3rd ed. [Philadelphia, Pa]: Elsevier Saunders, 2012, pp 1773-93.
  4. Lapouge G, Youssef KK, Vokaer B, et al.: Identifying the cellular origin of squamous skin tumors. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 108 (18): 7431-6, 2011. [PUBMED Abstract]
  5. Koster MI, Loomis CA, Koss TK, et al.: Skin development and maintenance. In: Bolognia JL, Jorizzo JL, Schaffer JV: Dermatology. 3rd ed. [Philadelphia, Pa]: Elsevier Saunders, 2012, pp 55-64.
  6. Kamino H, Reddy VB, Pui J: Fibrous and fibrohistiocytic proliferations of the skin and tendons. In: Bolognia JL, Jorizzo JL, Schaffer JV: Dermatology. 3rd ed. [Philadelphia, Pa]: Elsevier Saunders, 2012, pp 1961-77.
  7. McCalmont TH: Adnexal neoplasms. In: Bolognia JL, Jorizzo JL, Schaffer JV: Dermatology. 3rd ed. [Philadelphia, Pa]: Elsevier Saunders, 2012, pp 1829-50.
  8. Kaddu S, Kohler S: Muscle, adipose and cartilage neoplasms. In: Bolognia JL, Jorizzo JL, Schaffer JV: Dermatology. 3rd ed. [Philadelphia, Pa]: Elsevier Saunders, 2012, pp 1979-92.
  9. Harrington LE, Mangan PR, Weaver CT: Expanding the effector CD4 T-cell repertoire: the Th17 lineage. Curr Opin Immunol 18 (3): 349-56, 2006. [PUBMED Abstract]
  • Updated: December 5, 2014