Melanocytes in development and cancer

J Cell Physiol. 2010 Jan;222(1):38-41. doi: 10.1002/jcp.21935.


Melanocytes are pigment-producing cells in the skin of humans and other vertebrates. A number of genes involved in melanocyte development and vertebrate pigmentation have been characterized, largely through studies of a diversity of pigment mutations in a variety of species. Embryonic development of the melanocyte initiates with cell fate specification in the neural crest, which is then followed by cell migration and niche localization. Many genes involved in melanocyte development have also been implicated in the development of melanoma, an aggressive and fatal form of skin cancer that originates in the melanocyte. Although early stage melanomas that have not spread to the lymph nodes can be excised with little risk of recurrence, patients diagnosed with metastatic melanoma have a high mortality rate due to the resistance of most tumors to radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Transformed melanocytes that develop into melanomas proliferate abnormally and often begin to grow radially in the skin. Vertical growth can then follow this radial growth, leading to an invasion through the basement membrane into the underlying dermis and subsequent metastasis. It is still unclear, however, how a normal melanocyte becomes a melanoma cell, and how melanoma utilizes the properties of the normal melanocyte and its progenitors in its progression. The goal of this mini-review is to highlight the role of melanocyte developmental pathways in melanoma, and to discuss recent studies and tools being used to illuminate this connection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Embryonic Development*
  • Humans
  • Melanocytes / cytology*
  • Melanocytes / metabolism
  • Melanoma / embryology*
  • Melanoma / metabolism
  • Melanoma / pathology*
  • Signal Transduction