Mesothelioma, Melanoma May Go Hand-in-Hand

When veteran character actor James Rebhorn died in March, some initial media reports incorrectly attributed the movie and television supporting-player’s demise to mesothelioma.

The erring publications eventually caught their mistake and began listing the right cause of death: melanoma.

Photo by David Shankbone

Photo by David Shankbone

At first blush, it seems difficult to imagine confusing mesothelioma and melanoma. The former is a cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. The latter is a cancer that attacks skin.

Apparently, though, the two cancers are not all that dissimilar in at least one regard. They may even have a tendency to go hand-in-hand, according to a theory researchers in Australia are now advancing.

Writing in the February 2014, issue of Pathology: The Journal of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australia, the researchers pondered the possibility that mesothelioma and melanoma can be triggered together when one specific cell-protein fails to activate.

The protein is named BAP1. It is said by the researchers to fail to activate when that protein’s source of production mutates.

Earlier Diagnosis of Mesothelioma a Possibility

According to the researchers, testing for mutated BAP1 protein in otherwise healthy individuals might someday permit doctors to detect both mesothelioma and melanoma before onset through a genetic screening process.

Such a capability could buy victims precious time to mount a truly formidable early defense against the disease, with the result being longer survival and better quality of life.

The researchers also speculate that deeper scientific insights into the mechanisms behind the mutation of BAP1 might yield clues that help doctors develop highly targeted therapies and make more accurate prognoses.

The Australian researchers began probing the link between mesothelioma and melanoma when a 57-year-old female patient was found to be suffering from both types of cancer at the same time.

Upon first meeting the patient, they did not know she had mesothelioma. They knew only of the melanoma, which was metastasizing. Not until they took a PET scan of her body to identify metastasis sites was mesothelioma detected in her abdomen.

It was the presence of the mesothelioma cells along with those of the melanoma that prompted the researchers to hypothesize that the two cancers might be connected.

Their investigation turned up evidence pointing to the mutation of the BAP1 protein, but they acknowledge that much more research will be needed to confirm the findings.

Rebhorn Did Not Have Both Cancers

James Rebhorn, who was 65, had only melanoma, not melanoma plus mesothelioma. He battled the disease for nearly a quarter-century, but was nevertheless able to pursue a busy acting career the entire time.

He started that career in the 1970s. Because he so well fit the part of a stuffed shirt, by-the-book, management level law enforcement agent, he was often cast in that role.

For example, in “White Collar” on the USA Network he led an FBI special unit based in New York City.

“Seinfeld” fans remember Rebhorn from the show’s series finale. He played the unforgiving district attorney who put Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer behind bars for being bystanders who refused to come to the aid of a crime victim.

Rebhorn also appeared in a number of blockbuster films that went on to achieve cult-classic status, such as “Basic Instinct” (1992) and “Independence Day” (1996).

Most recently, he played the father of “Homeland” star Claire Danes on Showtime.