Why are redheads more susceptible to the potentially deadly skin cancer, melanoma?
If you have red hair and fair skin, you are significantly more likely to develop melanoma than are people with darker skin. Sun exposure and ultraviolet (UV) radiation are proven risks for virtually all skin cancers. Among the most potentially deadly skin cancers, melanoma can grow aggressively and can spread if not detected early. Unfortunately, the number of cases is rising at a rate of 3 percent per year, especially among fair-skinned people. Unlike other forms of skin cancer, the increased risk in fair-skinned individuals is not limited to sun-exposed skin, raising the possibility that UV radiation may not be the only risk factor for melanoma.
Research: Investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (Harvard; USA) worked with a mouse model of the redhead phenotype. The discovered that at least part of the increased risk is unrelated to UV exposure; rather, the pigment responsible for red hair causes oxidative damage in the skin, promoting melanoma formation (independent of UV radiation).
My Take: Limiting UV exposure to reasonable amounts remains an important risk-reduction strategy for melanoma. Sunscreen can reduce your risk of several types of skin cancer, protect against premature aging, and lower your chances of sunburn. Researchers are undertaking genome sequencing and biochemical studies to determine the relative contribution of environmental exposure and the inherent risk from red pigment. I’m Dr. Michael Hunter.
The small print: The material presented herein is informational only, and is not designed to provide specific guidance for an individual. Please check with a valued health care provider with any questions or concerns. As for me, I am a Harvard- , Yale- and UPenn-educated radiation oncologist, and I practice in the Seattle, WA (USA) area. I feel genuinely privileged to be able to share with you. If you enjoyed today’s offering, please consider clicking the follow button at the bottom of this page.
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Reference: Mitra, Devarati et al. Nature 491: 7424, 449-453.