Melanoma experts from around the country and world will gather in Albuquerque Thursday-Friday, Oct. 20-21 to discuss the latest research into the rise and progression of this deadly disease. The Genes, Environment & Melanoma Study (GEM) is an international consortium of researchers studying key aspects of melanoma risk. Now in its 12th year, the project is spearheaded by Marianne Berwick at the University of New Mexico and collaborators at the University of North Carolina. Participating scientists include investigators from Italy, Australia, Canada and several US states. This year's GEM meeting is supported by funds from the Canadian Melanoma Foundation.

"For more than a decade, the GEM project has yielded important new insights into melanoma risk, progression and survival," said Berwick, an internationally recognized melanoma researcher and associate director of Population Sciences at the UNM Cancer Center and Division Chief and head of Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention at the UNM Department of Internal Medicine. "Our areas of focus include the relationship between sun exposure and melanoma risk – a more complicated picture than is commonly understood – and the role that various genetic mutations play in modifying a person's predisposition to melanoma and the relative aggressiveness of the disease."

Berwick described two key findings that have emerged from the GEM – both highlighting just how nuanced the relationship between sun exposure and melanoma is. "Sun exposure causes melanoma," said Berwick. "But our research indicates that pre-diagnosis sun exposure, while causing the disease, does not actually lead to increased mortality – that is, high levels of sun exposure do not seem to raise a person's likelihood of dying from melanoma." GEM researchers have further shown that mutations in the major familial melanoma gene (known as p16 or CDKN2A) do increase melanoma risk. "However, high levels of sun exposure do not multiply that risk," she said.

Genes, Environment & Melanoma is a large population-based study that currently consists of 3,580 individual subjects with melanoma; with the full consent of each subject, GEM researchers have collected DNA samples, survival information and other data. In addition, the melanoma tumors of about one-third of subjects have been sequenced for certain key mutations. The study's subjects are representative of the populations from which they're drawn: California, New Jersey and North Carolina in the US; British Columbia and Ontario in Canada; Turin in Italy; and New South Wales and Tasmania in Australia.

GEM has been funded continuously since 1999 by the National Cancer Institute, the nation's top agency for cancer research. During this time, the project has brought together leading melanoma researchers worldwide to investigate gene-environment interactions that contribute to the rise of the disease; the role of sun exposure in melanoma survival; and various factors associated with gene mutations in melanoma tumors. Nearly 30 scientific papers have been published from GEM research to date.

Here in New Mexico, non-Hispanic whites have one of the highest rates of melanoma in the nation. While less common than other forms of skin cancer, melanoma is far deadlier. Approximately 320 new cases are diagnosed in New Mexico each year, and around 49 New Mexicans die of the disease annually, according to the New Mexico Tumor Registry. Though Hispanics and Native Americans have a lower melanoma risk than non-Hispanic whites, all New Mexicans should protect themselves from excessive sun exposure. People can help prevent melanoma and sun-related aging of the skin by limiting their time in the sun, covering up when outdoors and using a wide-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher.

Media contacts: Dorothy Hornbeck (505) 797-6673; e-mail,, James Korenchen Public Relations or Audrey Manring (505) 925-0486; e-mail,, UNM Cancer Center.