Why Red-Heads Have a Higher Melanoma Risk

The same genetic mutation responsible for red hair also creates a cancer-causing pathway.

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It's been well documented that people with red hair also have a higher risk for developing certain types of skin cancer, but new research published on Thursday may shed light as to why.

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It turns out that the same genetic mutation that gives people red hair also triggers a cancer-causing pathway when they are exposed to ultraviolet radiation, according to a team of researchers at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine.

A person's skin pigment, which can give a person red hair or fair skin, is influenced by the melanocortin-1 (MC1R) gene receptor. The MC1R mutation that underlies a person's red hair and the cancer-causing pathway (P13K/Akt) may help explain why red-headed individuals have a higher risk of developing melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer, accounting for 75 percent of all skin-cancer deaths.

"Our findings provide a possible molecular mechanism as to why red-haired individuals harboring MC1R 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," said co-author Wenyi Wei, in a statement.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that there will be nearly 77,000 new cases of melanoma in the United States in 2013, and close to 9,500 deaths.

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Melanoma is the least common type of skin cancer, and is rare because it is believed to be a multi-step process of genetic mutations that eventually increase a person's susceptibility to ultraviolet radiation, the report says. Both UVA and UVB rays can mutate the DNA in a person's skin cells and lead to melanoma.

In normal cases, the MC1R gene receptor is protected from cancer by binding with the tumor-suppressing gene known as PTEN. But in red-headed individuals, PTEN was absent and there was increased activity in the cancer-causing pathway that boosted cell growth and synchronized with another gene mutation associated with melanoma.

Wei said these findings could serve as a starting point for other studies, and that it remains unclear why only MC1R mutations associated with red hair, and not other variants, are unable to bind with PTEN.

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