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Melanoma researchers identify red-head risk

Queensland scientists have helped establish a new reason for why red-heads are more likely to develop melanoma.

Dr Ken Dutton-Regester and Professor Nick Hayward, from the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, were part of an international team that determined the molecular basis of melanoma risk.

“We’ve known for a while that people with variations in the main ‘red-hair’ gene, MC1R, are at a higher risk of melanoma because they have lower amounts of protective pigment in their skin,” Dr Dutton-Regester said.

“Until now, exactly how else these variants in MC1R might contribute to the development of melanoma has been unclear. We have found they are associated with a reduced ability to correctly regulate cell growth. This study opens up new avenues for research.”

Melanoma is the most deadly of all skin cancers. One in 20 Australians will develop melanoma in their lifetime. It represents just 2% of all skin cancers in Australia but is responsible for almost 80% of skin cancer related deaths.

Variants in MC1R are always present in fair skinned red-heads. But almost 70% of Australians, including those with dark hair and good skin-tanning ability, also have variations in MC1R. Depending on the variant, their risk of melanoma can increase by up to 300%.

“Understanding the science behind that risk gives us really important insights into the process of melanoma development. Looking to the future, we may be able to use these findings to create new drugs to treat melanoma,” Dr Dutton-Regester said.

“However in the meantime, it’s a timely reminder that everyone must be sun safe. Skin cancer is preventable.”

Scientists from QUT and Harvard Medical School were also authors on the paper which is published in the current issue of Molecular Cell.