People who have red hair, freckles and fair skin that does not tan easily have always known that they are at an increased risk for sunburns and the aging of skin through tanning. However, there is now evidence to suggest that they are actually at at an increased risk for skin cancer, specifically melanoma, independent of the ultraviolet (UV) effects. This can be interpreted to mean that they are genetically predisposed to developing melanoma.
Types of Melanin
There are actually two forms of melanin (pigmentation of the skin). People with darker skin produce eumelanin, and people with fair skin, freckles and red hair produce pheomelanin. It has been found that pheomelanin is less effective at protecting the skin from UV damage. This difference in the type of melanin produced is caused by a mutation in the MC1R2 gene.
What the Study Found
The researchers of the Nature article studied how melanoma developed in mouse models of darker olive, ginger and albino (the same genetically as the darker olive mice, but did not have the enzyme to make the melanin) mice. The researchers also modified each group of mice to be more susceptible to developing benign moles, which was hypothesized to be the first step in the development of melanoma. Interestingly, before any exposure to UV light was applied, the researchers noticed that half of the ginger mice had already developed melanoma! They concluded that the pigment itself caused melanoma, and the researchers suggested that this increased risk for melanoma could be attributed to the pigment production process or as a by-product of the process in the melanocytes (melanin-containing cells).
The Take-Away Message
It is important to remember that safe sun-tanning practices is still key to preventing skin cancer, in all types of skin and hair-coloured people!
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