People with red hair are known for their fiery locks, freckles, and pale skin. However, one unfortunate side effect of these features is an increased risk of developing skin cancer, especially melanoma. Now, by discovering the link between red hair and cancer risk, scientists have worked out a way to potentially protect people from the disease.
Redheads have unique variants of a protein called Melanocortin 1 Receptor (MC1R), which plays an important role in pigmentation. The way in which MC1R works is affected by a process called palmitoylation. A new study, published in Nature, shows that if this process is enhanced, the risk of developing melanoma is reduced. Although the researchers used mice rather than people, it's still an exciting find that could one day be applied to people in the future.
"Up until now our understanding of the molecular biology of melanomagenesis (developing melanoma cancer) lacks explanations for how MC1R is affected by UV radiation, why redheads are more prone to melanoma, and whether the activity of red hair color variants could be restored for therapeutic benefit," explained study author Dr Rutao Cui in a statement.
Researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine increased palmitoylation in mice using a specific molecule. They then exposed these mice, along with controls, to UV light. Amazingly, increasing palmitoylation prevented melanoma cancer from developing.
Redheads make up between 2 and 3 percent of the world's population, yet they suffer from a disproportionate amount of skin cancer. The disease is a serious public health concern, with between 2 and 3 million cases diagnosed worldwide each year. A lot of public awareness has been raised regarding the importance of sun protection, especially for those with light skin. Now, the new findings could one day provide an alternative method of UV protection, which could give redheads a new chance to enjoy the sun.
"We hope our study allows for the development of a pharmacological prevention strategy for red-headed people to protect their skin and let them enjoy the sun like other people," the researchers said.