Associate Professor Rick Sturm

BSc (Hons) PhD

NHMRC Senior Research Fellow

About me

A/P Sturm is a professional research scientist, trained as a molecular biologist, with over 30 years’ experience using a combination of techniques to examine the genetic association and function of common gene polymorphisms in pigmentation and melanoma. The focus of his research is concerned with investigations of melanocyte biology and pigmentation genetics in relation to human skin cancer.

Major goals are to understand the genetic basis of human pigmentation and to assess the phenotypic association of these physical traits including skin, hair and eye colour with skin UV-sensitivity and for skin cancer risk. In addition he is studying the process of development and differentiation of the melanocytic cell lineage using primary melanocyte cell culture as well as co-culture of these cells with keratinocytes. He has defined media requirements and conditions to induce melanoma sphere formation from adherent melanoma cell line monolayers, and examined the transcription factor changes that occur between these two cell states. This study will continue to provide information to allow the genes and processes involved in melanoma tumour formation and metastasis to be examined. He is currently in his third term as an NHMRC-SRFB.

Projects

Pigmentation Genotypes and Phenotypic Correlations with Dermoscopic Naevus Types and Distributions

Pigmentary traits such as red hair and fair skin, moles, eye colour, lack of tanning ability and propensity to freckle have been identified as genetic risk factors for skin cancer when combined with the environmental risk factor of high ultraviolet exposure. The major areas of investigation are the role of the OCA2 gene in directing eye colour, and the role of human melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) gene variants in directing skin phototype and response to UV-induced ligand binding and receptor activation. The MC1R coding sequence is highly polymorphic in human populations and we have examined MC1R variant allele frequencies in the general community as well as a collection of adolescent dizygotic and monozygotic twins with defined pigmentation characteristics. Subscription required to access this paper Variant allele frequencies have also been determined in several case-control studies of sporadic melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, and in familial melanoma kindreds collected within Australia. These studies have shown that three MC1R alleles Arg151Cys, Arg160Trp and Asp294His were associated with increased risk in all forms of skin cancer and with penetrance and age of onset in familial melanoma in CDKN2A mutation carriers. There is a significant MC1R variant allele heterozygote carrier effect on skin phototype and skin cancer risk, which indicates that these alleles do not behave in a strictly recessive manner.

Characterisation of melanoblast stem cell differentiation

The process of development and differentiation of the melanocytic cell lineage is being investigated using primary melanoblast and melanocyte cells cultured in vitro from human skin. This will provide information to allow the genes and processes involved in melanoma tumour formation and metastasis to be examined. These studies focus on the identification and molecular characterisation of the genes involved in melanocyte function.

Mechanisms of melanoma metastasis

Expression of the 3 integrin gene in melanoma in situ has been found to be the single most important marker of metastasis yet discovered. Experiments to investigate the effects of this expression has involved the use of Adenoviral gene transduction of the 3 integrin subunit into radial growth phase (RGP) melanoma cell lines and differential gene screening. A skin reconstruction model was used to assay the invasivness of RGP melanoma cells after ectopic 3 integrin expression and these studies have discovered induction of the anti-adhesive protein osteonectin is required for melanoma metastasis.