Red Heads Face Higher Cancer Risk

by Sam Malone


For some time, the high incidence of skin cancer in redheads has boggled medical science. However, recently the mystery has been solved as a new gene that connects skin pigmentation to cancer has surfaced.

The American Chemical Society has recently announced that it is the chemistry of skin pigments that elevates the potential risk of people with red hair to develop skin cancer. These findings were announced after the culmination of the research study taken up by Professor J. D Simon of Duke University. The professor was working on melanosomes, structures on the skin that are responsible for producing the skin pigment known as melanin. These melanosomes cannot be easily obtained from the skin. However, their presence in the hair, in order to give the hair their natural color, makes it easy for them to be obtained and studied.

The result showed that the melanosomes obtained from black hair were not affected by ultraviolet light. They were only affected by Ultraviolet B light, which is completely absorbed by the atmosphere. However, the red hairs were affected by both ultraviolet A and B lights which make them susceptible to damage by UV rays. The hair loses electrons through the process of oxidation. The DNA gets damaged due to this and therefore prolonged exposure to ultraviolet rays could lead to skin cancer.

In a separate study, conducted by Dr. Jiali Han of Harvard Medical School, it was found that women who have red hair and olive colored skin are at a significantly higher risk of developing cancer as compared to their Caucasian counterparts.

From their research, the team deduced that the melanocotin 1 receptor gene, also known as the MC1R may have several variations depending upon the color of the skin. It is this gene that influences the production of melanin and its processing in the skin. In the Caucasian population, this gene is highly variable. The red hair color variant of this gene when linked to fair skin showed poor resistance to ultraviolet rays.

After performing various tests, it was found that even when the effects of skin color and other cancer inducing factors were controlled, the red hair color variants of the MC1R showed a substantially increased risk of developing melanoma. This risk was the highest in women who have one red hair color variant of the gene, one non red hair colored variant, and a skin tone that ranged from medium to olive in color.

Reference:

  1. American Chemical Society Meeting & Exposition, Washington, D.C., Aug. 27-Sept. 1, 2005. John D. Simon, PhD, George B. Geller Professor, Chemistry Department, Duke University.

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