Redhead Pigment Boosts Skin-Cancer Risk


Fair-skinned, red-haired folks know — sometimes through painful experience — that they are more susceptible to the damaging effects of the Sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, including sunburn, skin ageing and a higher risk of skin cancers. But a study published recently shows that the pigment responsible for this colouring has a role in the development of melanoma.

“There is something about the redhead genetic background that is behaving in a carcinogenic fashion, independent of UV,” says David Fisher, a cancer biologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who led the study. “It means that shielding from UV would not be enough.” But for a number of years there have been hints that UV exposure alone might not account entirely for the risk of melanoma in redheads.

The researchers looked at how melanomas develop in mouse models of olive-skinned, ginger and albino colouring. The researchers planned to expose the mice to UV light and monitor differences in melanoma development. But before they got to that part of the experiment, about half the ginger mice had developed melanomas. Fisher says that he and his team were shocked. “The first thing we needed to do was bring a UV meter into the animal room to be sure there wasn’t some inadvertent UV being radiated out of the light bulbs or something,” he says. “And it turned out there was not.”

The result suggested that the pigment itself was a cause of melanoma..

Although the mechanism is interesting, it is probably a less common trigger of melanoma than UV radiation because most melanomas still develop on skin that sees the sun.

The sun-safety message does not change because of the latest results. UV is very tightly and convincingly linked to the formation of most non-melanoma types of skin cancer. One of the most important messages from this is to avoid an assumption that this takes UV off the hook.  It is possible that UV exposure worsens the carcinogenic mechanism of the red pigment.

Hope you found this interesting.

Regards Dr Ian Katz Director,

SunDoctors Skin Cancer Clinics