Research into skin cancer

Researchers around the world are looking at the causes, diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer.

Go to Cancer Research UK’s clinical trials database if you are looking for a trial for skin cancer in the UK. You need to talk to your specialist or GP if there are any trials that you think you might be able to take part in.

Research and clinical trials

All cancer treatments must be fully researched before they can be used for everyone. This is so we can be sure that:

  • they work
  • they work better than the treatments already available
  • they are safe

Research into causes of skin cancer


Researchers have been looking at gene changes that might cause skin cancer. They have been collecting blood and tissue samples from people with non melanoma skin cancer of the head and neck. They want to identify changes in genes that may have caused the cancer. They also want to find out how the body's immune system responds to the cancer.

Another trial has been looking at genes and cancers of the eyelid.

Stem cells

Researchers are looking at a type of cell called stem cells. Stem cells help keep normal skin healthy. Researchers have found stem cells in skin cancers. They think these cancer stem cells are responsible for cancer growth. So they want to learn more about them.

Risks and benefits of sunlight

One study looked at measuring the risks and benefits of exposure to sunlight. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun can cause damage to the skin cells and lead to skin cancer. But we need some sunlight for our bodies to make vitamin D. 

The research team found that even very low levels of ultraviolet radiation can increase vitamin D production and cause DNA damage, in all skin types. The level is well below the usual level that would cause sunburn. For light skin they found that DNA damage can happen in the upper and lower skin layers. But for dark skin it was only in the upper layers. This helps to explain the higher risk of skin cancer for people with light skin.

Research into diagnosing skin cancer

Researchers are looking at an artificial intelligence tool called DERM to see if it can diagnose skin cancers. The doctor photographs the suspected skin cancer using a smart phone camera with a special lens. The DERM tool examines the photographs to identify skin cancers. They compare the DERM tool findings with a specialist doctors opinion and results from taking skin samples (biopsies).

Researchers also want to find out whether using the DERM tool can reduce the number of unnecessary referrals to see a skin specialist or to have a biopsy.

Research into treatment

Targeted drugs and immunotherapy

Researchers have looked at targeted cancer drugs and immunotherapy for skin cancer. These treatments work in different ways. For example, they can change the way cells signal to each other. Or they can stimulate the body to attack or control cancer cells. 

Targeted drugs and immunotherapies being looked at include: 

  • pazopanib
  • sonidegib

Researchers are also looking at a virus treatment for some cancers, including skin cancer. They have found a way to change the cold sore virus so it can target and destroy cancer cells. The changed virus is called RP1. They are studying RP1 on it's own, or together with an immunotherapy drug called nivolumab. 

A type of liquid radiotherapy 

Researchers are looking at a type of liquid radiotherapy. Rhenium Skin Cancer Therapy (SCT) is a paste with radioactive particles in it.

They put a small piece of protective foil onto the skin cancer, then the Rhenium SCT is applied on top. You have 1 treatment. After treatment your skin is not radioactive as the paste does not come into contact with the skin. And no further radiation will come from the treatment area.

In Europe doctors use Rhenium SCT to treat non melanoma skin cancer. And research so far has  shown that it works as well as surgery or radiotherapy but without the side effects. 

Research is now trying to find out:

  • how well Rhenium SCT works
  • how it affects quality of life
  • what the skin looks like after treatment (cosmetic outcome)
  • more about the side effects
  • Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials database 
    Accessed February 2023

  • Clinical database
    Accessed February 2023

  • Evolving Role of Systemic Therapies in Non-melanoma Skin Cancer
    C.Conforti and others
    Clinical Oncology,  Volume 31, Issue 11, November 2019, Pages 759-768

  • High dose brachytherapy with non sealed 188Re (rhenium) resin in patients with non-melanoma skin cancers (NMSCs): single center preliminary results.
    P. Castellucci and others 
    European Journal of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging, 2021. Volume 48, Issue 5, Pages 1511 to 1521

Last reviewed: 
23 Feb 2023
Next review due: 
23 Nov 2026

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