Red Hair Gene Also Increases Melanoma Risk

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Mutations in MC1R, the same gene responsible for red hair, a reduced ability to obtain a tan and fair skin, are also responsible for an increased risk of melanoma, according to a new study conducted at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Of all skin cancer types, melanoma is the deadliest.

Specifically, the genetic mutations make skin cells more susceptible to cancer development when they’re exposed to UV, or ultraviolet, radiation, the type of radiation produced by both the sun and tanning beds. However, the researchers aren’t ruling out the notion that other factors may increase melanoma risk for those with red hair as well.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, around 120,000 melanoma cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S.

The Reason Why Redheads Have Higher Melanoma Risk

Wenyi Wei, one of the lead researchers behind the new study, said that the findings indicate the possibility of a “molecular mechanism” behind the apparent increased risk of melanoma among redheads.

In order to conduct their study, the researchers performed experiments on mice and on cells in petri dishes. The researchers found that when the MC1R gene is not mutated – keeping in mind that this mutation is necessary for red hair to be present – it binds to a gene known as PTEN, subsequently protecting against alterations in cells that can lead to cancer development.

However, MC1R genes with the red hair mutation are unable to bind to the PTEN gene. Subsequently, when PTEN genes are exposed to ultraviolet radiation, they’re destroyed more quickly than they would be if they’d been bound by MC1R genes. Cells known as melanocytes that produce pigment also grow at a faster rate, and the combination of these two factors equates to a higher skin cancer risk.

The researchers cautioned that because the study was performed on mice and cells in a laboratory environment, additional research will be needed to see if the findings apply to humans as well.

An additional recent study found that pheomelanin, the skin pigment produced by redheads, makes skin cells more susceptible to genetic damage and subsequently the development of skin cancer.

The Bottom Line

The same genetic mutation that’s responsible for fair skin and red hair is also responsible for an increased risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, according to a new study. However, the researchers would like to conduct an additional study on humans as opposed to mice and petri dish-bound cells in order to confirm the link.

The full text of the study can be found online in Molecular Cell.

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