Metastatic malignant melanoma (MM) is usually incurable and responds poorly to chemotherapy. Because many cytotoxic drugs cause cell death by inducing apoptosis, an imbalance of apoptosis regulatory proteins may contribute to MM treatment resistance. We have previously shown reduced expression of Bcl-2 protein, a negative regulator of apoptosis, in MM as compared with benign nevi. It is hypothesized that other apoptosis regulators may be involved in survival of MM cells. We examined the expression of Bax, Bcl-2, Bcl-X, and Mcl-1 in human benign nevi, primary MM, and metastatic MM using immunohistochemistry. Results were confirmed with Western blotting. The proapoptotic protein, Bax, was surprisingly overexpressed in all MM samples compared with benign nevi. Interestingly, in most MM samples there was overexpression of Mcl-1 or Bcl-XL, both negative regulators of apoptosis. Increased expression of Mcl-1 and Bcl-XL was first observed in thin primary melanomas, suggesting that up-regulation of these proteins represents a relatively early event associated with malignant transformation in MM. As published previously, the majority of primary and metastatic MM exhibited reduced Bcl-2 levels. We conclude that the apoptosis inhibitors Bcl-XL or Mcl-1, alone or in combination, may circumvent the normal cell death pathway, contributing to the pathogenesis and treatment resistance in metastatic MM.

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