Red hair gene also increases risk skin cancer on non-red haired people

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New research suggests that anyone could hold the gene for red hair, which gives them, just like redheads, a greater risk of developing skin cancer.

It is commonly known that redheads have a higher risk of developing skin cancer. Their gene structure shows that the pigment production which leads to red hair, pale skin and freckles is also responsible for an increased risk of skin cancer when exposed to the sun. However, these genes are not exclusive to redheads, as it now appears that light and dark-haired or eyed people can also hold this gene, which means that they could be at risk as well.

MC1R gene

The MC1R gene instructs our cells to produce pigment and tan the skin, to protect it against UV-radiation when exposed to the sun. Eumelanin and pheomelanin are two types of pigment cells. People who produce more eumelanin, often have dark hair and darker skin that tans easily. People with more phaeomelanin, usually have red or blonde hair, freckles and light colored skin that easily burns.

British scientists from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute have discovered that redheads carry two copies of the MC1R gene, but just one copy of the gene can increase your risk of developing skin cancer. The study included more than 400 tumor samples from patients with an aggressive form of skin cancer. It shows that, compared to people without the MC1R gene, people that carry at least one copy of the gene are up to 42% more likely to suffer from sun-associated mutations.

These results are very important for people with only one copy of the gene, because they might not be aware of their risk. Although it’s hard to say how many individuals in total are affected, it is estimated that about 6% of the UK population has two copies of the MC1R gene variant and hence have red hair and around 25% of the UK population has only one copy and is therefore typically not red haired. This concludes that people with pale skin, light eyes or freckles, are at high risk as well. Based on this study, lead researcher David Adams recommends this at-risk group to be extra careful with the sun.

Do you have any of the characteristics? Use sunscreen, avoid the sun between 11am and 3pm and cover your skin when you’re exposed to the sun.

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