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Redheads face unique skin cancer risk: study

Redheads could face a specific risk when it comes to melanoma according to a new study. Thomas Hawk

It’s no secret that people with pale skin, red hair, freckles and an inability to tan are at risk of developing skin cancer, but a new study has pinpointed the pigment that gives people red hair as a potential melanoma contributor.

The US study, published in Nature today, found a pathway independent of harmful ultraviolet rays could contribute to melanoma formation in mice.

Massachusetts General Hospital researcher David Fisher and colleagues found that it’s not just poor protection from UV rays in redheads that increases the risk of melanoma.

The study delivers an interesting finding that could one day help inform melanoma prevention strategies, said Ian Olver, chief executive officer of Cancer Council Australia.

“It’s suggesting that because melanoma is in fair skinned people, and fair skinned people are in other than sun exposed areas, there must be another mechanism than just the sensitivity to UV light,” Dr Olver said.

“The assumption has been that most of this is UV and this is adding new information that there’s a pathway that’s independent of the UV radiation.”

The study found a high incidence of skin cancers in mice with red hair traits, even in the absence of known drivers of melanoma, including UV exposure. Since the effect was not repeated in pigment-free albino mice, the study authors inferred that the pigment found in red haired mice had carcinogenic effects.

“Although protection from ultraviolet radiation remains important, additional strategies may be required for optimal melanoma prevention,” the study authors write.

“It’s a long way before we do that but this sort of basic research gives you the potential of another target that would add to preventing melanoma,” Dr Olver said.

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