Caffeine May Prevent Some Skin Cancers

That cup of coffee you picked up before your 9 a.m. class may prevent more than just sleep during lecture.

A team of researchers—led by Paul Nghiem ’86 of the University of Washington Department of Dermatology—released a study last week that determined that the topical application of caffeine may prevent the some types of skin cancer.

The research—published in the Journal for Investigative Dermatology— provides a biological explanation for recent clinical studies that have shown a negative correlation between caffeine intake and the risk of developing non-melanoma skin cancer.

According to the study, caffeine appears to reduce the risk of some skin cancers by interrupting the ATR pathway, causing apoptosis or cell suicide of these damaged and potentially cancerous cells.

ATR is a protein kinase that is responsible for facilitating the replication of DNA, especially in damaged and dividing cells.

While ATR plays a minimal role in normal cells, recently damaged and precancerous cells need the function of ATR, Nghiem explained.

The researchers determined that low levels of caffeine have no effect on normal cells.

The study specifically addressed the preventative effects of caffeine for cases of Squamous Cell Carcinoma—the second most common type of skin cancer in the United States.

It has not been proven to have a similar effect in reducing the risk of melanoma or other varieties of skin cancer, said Rachael A. Clark of the Harvard Skin Disease Research Center.

In addition to the oral intake of caffeine, the topical application of caffeine may also help to reduce the risk of skin cancer.

One possible application Nghiem and his team are considering is its addition to sunscreen.

Even though caffeine is not opaque, it absorbs UV radiation, and as an additive, would increase the efficacy of a sunscreen.

In addition, once UV damage has been done, putting topical caffeine on mouse skin and in human cells has the effect of increasing the rate of cell suicide by 100 percent, thus decreasing the risk of cancer, Nghiem said.

“From a skin cancer perspective, I think it is a great idea,” Clark said, though she added that she believes that more research needs to be done concerning the topical application.

This research has only been conducted in mice and human keratinocytes, and any human application is still years away, according to Nghiem.

“By no means are we suggesting that people change their drinking habits, but if you drink coffee, this is a another reason to feel good about it,” he said.