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The presentations of primary and metastatic cutaneous malignant melanoma (CMM) are very diverse. Evidence increasingly indicates that single CMM cells spread to distant sites quite early during cancer progression and are soon eliminated before they become clinically detectable. However bulky metastases which appear at a later stage might derive from some of these early neoplastic cells. It seems that local CMM single cell micro-metastases commonly predict sentinel lymph node involvement without overtly reflecting CMM progression to bulky visceral metastases. This study is intended to review the current understanding of the mechanisms underlying two CMM presentations. The first is the long interval, apparently disease-free, with persistent CMM dormancy, which may precede overt metastatic growth. Immunosurveillance may induce dormancy in single CMM cells disseminated in the body by blocking their proliferation cycle. The second is the socalled CMM smoldering phenomenon, which is marked by an alternate progression and regression of CMM locally with metastases that wax and wane for long periods of time over restricted skin areas. These very diverse patterns of CMM progression are likely to be ascribable to a number of biological factors, including the activation of CMM stem cells, and the combined phenotypic heterogeneity and variability in proliferative amplification in CMM cell clusters. Furthermore an adequate stimulation of CMM immune-surveillance and the induction of a specific stromal structure and vascular response are required. In this context, most early CMM tumors are in part controlled by lymphocytemediated responses before they become clinically detectable. However both the role of immune-surveillance and the mechanisms underlying both persistent and smoldering CMM dormancy remain unclear.
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