Red head and fairer skin people are more likely to contract melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer, researchers have found.

According to the new findings, the genetic mutation responsible for red hair and fair skin is also responsible for raising the risk of melanoma.

The study, published in the journal Molecular Cell, found that mutations in a gene called melanocortin-1 (MC1R) – responsible for causing red hair, fair skin and impaired tanning ability – also stimulates skin cells for an increased risk of cancer upon exposure to UV rays.

“[The findings] provide a possible molecular mechanism as to why red-haired individuals harboring [these] mutations are much more susceptible to UV-induced skin damage than individuals with darker skin, resulting in a 10- to-100-fold higher frequency of melanoma,” study co-senior author Wenyi Wei, an investigator at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an associate professor of pathology at Harvard, said.

‘We think that MC1R variants, in combination with mutations in the BRAF gene, could be used as markers of an increased risk of developing melanoma,’ said Dr Wei.

The study
For the purpose of the study, Wei and colleagues conducted a series of experiments on mice.

Mice were genetically engineered to lack the genetic mutation required for red hair and fair skin.

MC1R is characterized with an ability to bind to a gene called PTEN, which protects against cellular changes responsible for causing cancer.

Later, the MC1R gene mutations were mimicked to those seen in people with red hair, fair skin and poor tanning ability. Upon mutation, the MC1R failed to bind to PTEN.

Thus, upon exposure to UV rays, PTEN was destroyed at a higher rate, accelerating the growth of pigment-producing cells (called melanocytes).

Although the findings of the study conducted on mice and cells in lab dishes clearly established the links between gene maturations responsible for causing red hair and fair skin and raised skin cancer risk, more research is needed to see if the same mechanism occurs in humans.

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