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Study: Redheads’ genetic pigment and melanoma

elizabethI110612_optBY PAT SUMMERS

Trade-offs, everywhere. The most recent: people with red hair, fair skin and freckles – a combination famous in history, literature and show biz -- are more susceptible to melanoma, a potentially deadly form of skin cancer, than those w/ darker skin and hair or even blonds.

Results of a study just published online in the journal Nature suggest that the pigment behind red hair, pheomelanin (pronounced fe’-o-MEL’-a-nin), may be a trigger in the development of the dreaded disease, even when redheads take all proper precautions and keep covered up.

And all this time, everyone’s been warned against the sun’s UV rays as a cause agent. Although redheads have long been known to be at higher risk for melanoma, the reason was assumed to be their having less natural protection against UV radiation – until now, reports

Now the finger points to redheads' genes, which describes as a “unexpected factor.” A cancer biologist at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital who led the study (on mice, by the way), says the “redhead genetic background is behaving in a carcinogenic fashion.”

In other words, shielding from UV would not be enough, according to However, UV doesn’t get a free pass because the possible connection between it and the carcinogenic mechanism of the red pigment remains to be explored. It’s possible that in combination, one worsens the other.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that more than 76,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma this year, and some 9,000 will die from it, reports If found early, about six out of seven melanomas will be cured, says Sciencedaily, making increased awareness and caution ever more important.

If all this proves out down the road somewhere, scientists may be able to identify specific antioxidants that could combat harmful cellular processes. That done, they might be added to sunscreens. Cue: redhead rejoicings.

All this comes way too late to be of use to Mary Magdalene, Elizabeth I, Thomas Jefferson, George Bernard Shaw, Vincent Van Gogh and Cleopatra, among the storied redheads in history. But it may happen in our lifetimes.

Comments (1)
1 Tuesday, 06 November 2012 16:34
The Dermalert home skinscreening software trial is in the open enrollment phase. The study is completely anonymous and provides those who sign up with a free copy of the Dermalert software. Dermalert was developed through NIH funding to aid in the detection of new or changing moles that are at higher risk of being a melanoma. To learn about the study and obtain your free copy of the Dermalert software use the participation code: DERMCHECK at

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