Oncogenes can initiate tumors only in certain cellular contexts, which is referred to as oncogenic competence. In melanoma, whether cells in the microenvironment can endow such competence remains unclear. Using a combination of zebrafish transgenesis coupled with human tissues, we demonstrate that GABAergic signaling between keratinocytes and melanocytes promotes melanoma initiation by BRAFV600E. GABA is synthesized in melanoma cells, which then acts on GABA-A receptors in keratinocytes. Electron microscopy demonstrates specialized cell–cell junctions between keratinocytes and melanoma cells, and multielectrode array analysis shows that GABA acts to inhibit electrical activity in melanoma/keratinocyte cocultures. Genetic and pharmacologic perturbation of GABA synthesis abrogates melanoma initiation in vivo. These data suggest that GABAergic signaling across the skin microenvironment regulates the ability of oncogenes to initiate melanoma.


This study shows evidence of GABA-mediated regulation of electrical activity between melanoma cells and keratinocytes, providing a new mechanism by which the microenvironment promotes tumor initiation. This provides insights into the role of the skin microenvironment in early melanomas while identifying GABA as a potential therapeutic target in melanoma.

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