An international team, led by Professor Stephen Jane and Dr Charbel Darido of Monash University, says the presence of the gene, called Grhl3, signals Stop to cell proliferation while its absence may trigger squamous cell cancer (SCC).
The scientists claim to have found that the gene is also virtually absent in squamous cell cancer that arises in other tissues, including head and neck cancers, which have a poor prognosis, the 'Cancer Cell' journal reported.
Because drugs that are effective against SCC are already in development for treating other cancers, the scientists hop treatments and prevention therapies for SCC could be offered to patients within five years.
In their research, the scientists showed that loss of this particular gene knocks out the signal to stop skin cells from growing. And, without this stop signal, the cells keep increasing in number and eventually forms a cancer.
'Virtually every SCC tumour we looked at had almost undetectable levels of this particular gene, so its absence is a very profound driver of these cancers,' Professor Jane said.
In fact, identifying this driver of cancer in skin and other organs provides a clear direction for developing strategies for both prevention and treatment in the relatively near future, say the scientists.
Professor Jane said: 'Our research indicates that drugs already in clinical trials for other cancers may actually be effective in treating SCC -- they just need to be applied to skin or head and neck cancers.
'This means that a number of the usual hurdles in getting therapies to trial have already been cleared, so patients could be reaping the benefits of this research in five years.'
According to the scientists, it's a similar case with prevention. 'There are strategies by which we could increase the expression of this gene that will likely afford some protection from skin cancer, for example in the form of a supplement in suncream.
'The molecules that would increase this expression, are very well validated, so there would be few barriers to applying them in clinical trials,' Prof Jane added.