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Older skin 'raises' cancer danger

1st September 2009

A UK study has suggested that elderly people may have more danger of developing skin cancer because their skin cannot prompt an adequate defence from the body's immune system.

Hands Young and Old

This goes against the idea that defective T cells caused the immune system to function less well as a person aged.

The study, by researchers at University College London, suggested that it was the skin's failure to draw T cells to the appropriate place that appeared to be the problem.

The study's head, Professor Arne Akbar, said they knew that elderly people had less immunity, but they did not know "why and how" it occurred.

Two groups of participants - one aged 40 and one aged over 70 - were given an antigen injection in order to provoke a reaction from their T cells. 

The reaction of the T cells in the elderly participants was considerably lower than that shown by the younger group.

However, the researchers found that the cells were not defective but the skin's capacity to pull them in was absent.

"At the outset we thought it would be the cells responsible for combating infections that might be at fault, but the surprising thing was the T cells were fine but they couldn't get into the skin - the signals were missing," Mr Akbar said.

He said it might be possible to find a method of boosting immunity in elderly people to lessen the danger of skin cancer.

"The question that it raises is what survival advantage there is to this, is there a negative reason for having too much immunity in the skin when you get older?" he said.

 

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