People with Redhead Pigment are More Susceptible to Skin Cancer

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People with red hair are more susceptible to skin cancer — but it may not all be the fault of the sun. BAS CZERWINSKI/EPA/ALAMY

Redheads with fair-skin are more susceptible to the damaging effects of the Sun. A new study indicated that the pigment responsible for this coloring has a role in the development of skin cancer.

The scientists published their findings in the journal Nature. Something in the redhead genetic background is behaving in a carcinogenic fashion, independent of UV light, states David Fisher, a cancer biologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and lead author. Shielding form UV light wouldn’t be enough to stop it.

People with red hair produce a different form of melanin than people with darker skin. It’s called pheomelanin and it’s less effective at protecting the skin from UV damage than eumelanin. This difference is cause by a mutation in the gene MC1R.

The goal of this study was to investigate the molecular backdrop of this increased risk for melanoma in redheads. They looked at how melanomas developed in mouse models of olive-skinned, ginger, and albino colorings. The last group has the same genetic background as the darker-skinned mice, but lacks the enzymes needed to synthesize melanin. Each group’s genes were tweaked to be more susceptible to develop benign moles, which is the first probable step in the development of melanoma.

Before the researchers were able to expose the mice to UV light, half of the ginger mice had developed melanomas. The pigment itself was the cause of the melanoma. This means that the increased melanoma risk could have something to do with the pigment-producing process in melanocytes.

[via Nature]

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