Porcelain white skin against a fiery red mane may look inspiring, but the health risks are less romantic


A study has revealed that individuals who possess a particular red hair gene have an increased risk of developing melanoma skin cancer.

Researchers from the Sanger Institute have identified the silent gene that increases a carrier’s risk of developing skin cancer. The so-called ‘red hair gene’ gives the skin the same effect as having two decades of sun exposure, thus making the skin cells susceptible to cancerous changes.

It’s estimated that in the UK, one in every four people is a carrier of this silent gene, named MC1R (melanocortin-1 receptor) giving them an increased risk of developing malignant melanoma at some point during their lifetime. This 25 per cent of the UK’s population have only one copy of the MC1R gene variant and are therefore not true redheads, but it’s these people who are at greater risk of developing skin cancer.

So who are more likely to be carriers of the MC1R gene? Despite the ‘red hair gene’ name, it doesn’t necessarily mean those with red hair will be carriers, although 80 per cent of people with red hair are likely to have an MC1R genetic variant. But the individuals more susceptible to the effects of MC1R aren’t likely to be true redheads. They’ll be white, have very pale skin, and have freckles on their bodies, including the face. Their hair colour may be brown or blonde with a touch of red. Despite this, the 6 per cent of the UK’s population who carry two copies of the MC1R gene variant — true redheads — are also susceptible to skin mutations and developing skin cancer.

How did the researchers from the Sanger Institute identify this gene? They used a study sample of 405 people who had been diagnosed with melanoma and collected tumour samples from these patients. Upon carrying out genetic analysis studies, they discovered MC1R and genetic variants and that those who had this gene had 42 per cent more sun-associated cancerous mutations than those without it — comparable to the effects of having two decades’ worth of sun exposure.

The MCIR gene exerts its effects by affecting melanocytes — melanin producing cells — which gives the skin colour. Light-skinned people naturally have less melanin pigmentation and therefore have lower levels of protection from UV radiation. Individuals with red hair possess a different type of melanin; pheomelanin, which with the red hair gene MC1R, offers even less protection.

Dr David Adams, the lead researcher from the study at the Sanger Institute, has said:

‘We have known for a while that there is an association between these genetic variants that cause red hair and increased risk of melanoma. But in this case, all people, not just pale redheads, should be careful in the sun. It has been known for a while that a person with red hair has an increased likelihood of developing skin cancer, but this is the first time that the gene has been proven to be associated with skin cancers with more mutations. Unexpectedly, we also showed that people with only a single copy of the gene variant still have a much higher number of tumour mutations than the rest of the population. What this really does is show at least a contributing factor to more mutations’.

This study has revealed that there’s a high proportion of the population that need to take greater protective measures when venturing out into the sun. Many people fail to heed the warning signs, especially in the UK, but during the summer months the UV rays are at their strongest. In a recent survey more than one in three people in the UK revealed that they have been sunburnt. Such news should be enough to urge those 25 per cent with the MC1R gene into action, of taking greater care during the British summer.

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