Does 'ginger gene' increase skin cancer risk?

The Times says “the anti-cancer gene fails in the sunshine”, among many reports on why people with red hair may be more susceptible to malignant melanoma – the most severe form of skin cancer…

The Times says “the anti-cancer gene fails in the sunshine”, among many reports on why people with red hair may be more susceptible to malignant melanoma – the most severe form of skin cancer.

The findings come from mainly laboratory-based research focused upon a protein called MC1R. Certain variants of this protein are known to be associated with red (or "ginger") hair colour, fair skin and vulnerability to being sunburned. People with these gene variants are also more likely to get melanoma, although the biology behind this is poorly understood.

The researchers found that the “normal” form of MC1R protects a cancer-suppressing protein called PTEN from being broken down when skin cells are exposed to ultraviolet light (UV) light. UV light – a form of radiation emitted by the sun, as well as artificial sources such as tanning lamps – is the leading cause of skin cancer.

But the “ginger” version of MC1R (RHC variants) does not. So exposure to UV light can break down PTEN leading to an increased risk of melanoma.

This research furthers the understanding of the biological mechanisms by which malignant melanoma may develop – though these mechanisms are likely to be complex, and this study alone only provides a piece of the puzzle.

Be sun smart

Whatever your hair colour it is important to limit your exposure to sunlight. This is easy to do by remembering the SMART acronym:

  • Spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm.
  • Make sure you never burn.
  • Aim to cover up with a hat, T-shirt and sunglasses.
  • Remember to take extra care with children.
  • Then use factor 15+ sunscreen.

Read more about how to protect your skin and eyes in the sun

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Boston University School of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and various other academic institutions worldwide. The study received various sources of financial support including the US National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Molecular Cell.

The media coverage is generally representative of the findings of this study. The Mail Online’s headline “Redheads are '100 times more susceptible to the most lethal form of skin cancer'” may suggest that this is a new finding. However, this link was already known, and the current research has looked into why this link might exist.


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