Red hair pigment might raise melanoma risk, study says

May 9, 2013 by Dennis Thompson, Healthday Reporter
Red hair pigment might raise melanoma risk: study
Dermatologists say redheads must take extra care to check skin, avoid sun.

(HealthDay)—The red in redheads' hair is thought to put them at increased risk of the dangerous skin cancer melanoma, even if they don't spend a lot of time in the sun, according to a new study.

Study co-author Dr. David Fisher and his research team first uncovered the apparent link between pigment and melanoma last fall. That study used genetically altered mice that had been given a that increased their risk of contracting the skin cancer.

Now the researchers are taking the next step: asking why the body's creation of the red hair pigment—called pheomelanin—might prompt that risk.

Their new paper, published May 9 in the journal BioEssays, speculates that pheomelanin could increase skin by leaving more vulnerable to .

By determining the way pheomelanin increases cancer risk, the researchers hope to figure out a way to prevent future cases of melanoma.

"We are focusing on what the possibilities are, what the directions for new research are and how that could impact treatment," said Fisher, chief of at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

The researchers had previously found that at least half of red-furred mice developed melanoma, even though none of them had been exposed to any ultraviolet (UV) radiation. By comparison, only about 10 percent of mice without red fur contracted melanoma.

"In the mouse studies, it was possible to completely remove UV and there was still a major incidence of melanoma that was attributable to the red pigment," Fisher said.

Scientists note, however, that animal studies often fail to produce similar results in humans.

Fisher speculated on two ways the red pigment might cause skin cells to be more vulnerable to melanoma.

It could be that the creation of pheomelanin in the body might also generate unstable oxygen-containing molecules that can damage cells. These molecules are known as reactive , or ROS.

On the other hand, synthesis of pheomelanin might rob skin cells of crucial stores of antioxidants that would otherwise be used to prevent ROS damage.

"We think a new prevention opportunity exists if we can block the form of reactive oxygen damage that the red pigment is producing," Fisher said.

Despite his research, Fisher does not downplay the role that UV rays have in skin cancer risk for everyone—particularly redheads.

"I want to emphasize that we strongly believe UV is a contributor to melanoma, and UV may actually amplify this red phenomenon," he said. "It still is absolutely crucial for people to avoid sun exposure."

But the knowledge that sun exposure is only one factor in their increased risk of melanoma should prompt redheads to take additional precautions, said Dr. Jeanine Downie, a spokeswoman for the Skin Cancer Foundation.

"Redheads should get more frequent body checks," said Downie, a dermatologist based in Montclair, N.J. "If they have no family history of skin cancer, they should still be checked at least twice a year, rather than the annual check we recommend for everyone else. If they have a family history of , they should be checked every three months."

This is crucial since melanoma could form even on a part of the body that is never touched by sunlight.

"The location on one's skin of where a may occur is not necessarily confined to the sun-exposed parts of the skin," Fisher said. "It could occur elsewhere on the body."

Redheads also should practice vigilant sun avoidance, Downie said. They should use a sunscreen with at least SPF 30, and they should reapply it every hour.

They also should consider wearing broad-brimmed hats when outdoors, sticking to the shady side of the sidewalk and even vacationing in mountain areas rather than at the beach.

"Unfortunately with redheads, they have to practice some lifestyle alterations," Downie said. "They should practice even more strict sun avoidance than we originally thought they should."

Explore further: Unexpected factor contributes to melanoma risk in red-haired, fair-skinned individuals

More information: Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for tips on skin cancer prevention.

Related Stories

Unexpected factor contributes to melanoma risk in red-haired, fair-skinned individuals

October 31, 2012
The well-established elevated risk of melanoma among people with red hair and fair skin may be caused by more than just a lack of natural protection against ultraviolet (UV) radiation. In an article receiving Advance Online ...

Researchers observe an increased risk of cancer in people with history of non-melanoma skin cancer

April 23, 2013
A prospective study by researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) observed an association between risk of second primary cancer and history of non-melanoma skin cancer in white men and women.

Melanoma rates rising in US children

April 3, 2013
(HealthDay)—Melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, doesn't usually occur in kids, but a new study shows that it's happening more often.

UV photographs of 12-year-olds show skin cancer risk

March 28, 2012
Look at a middle school assembly – during their lifetime one in 50 of these kids will develop melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer that kills 48,000 people every year, worldwide. Now look at these kids again ...

Some melanoma survivors still use tanning beds, skip sunscreen

April 9, 2013
Although most survivors of melanoma take precautions to protect their skin from the sun and further occurrences of cancer, data presented at the AACR Annual Meeting 2013, held in Washington, D.C., April 6-10, revealed that ...

Recommended for you

How cancer metastasis happens: Researchers reveal a key mechanism

January 18, 2018
Cancer metastasis, the migration of cells from a primary tumor to form distant tumors in the body, can be triggered by a chronic leakage of DNA within tumor cells, according to a team led by Weill Cornell Medicine and Memorial ...

Modular gene enhancer promotes leukemia and regulates effectiveness of chemotherapy

January 18, 2018
Every day, billions of new blood cells are generated in the bone marrow. The gene Myc is known to play an important role in this process, and is also known to play a role in cancer. Scientists from the German Cancer Research ...

These foods may up your odds for colon cancer

January 18, 2018
(HealthDay)—Chowing down on red meat, white bread and sugar-laden drinks might increase your long-term risk of colon cancer, a new study suggests.

The pill lowers ovarian cancer risk, even for smokers

January 18, 2018
(HealthDay)—It's known that use of the birth control pill is tied to lower odds for ovarian cancer, but new research shows the benefit extends to smokers or women who are obese.

Researchers develop swallowable test to detect pre-cancerous Barrett's esophagus

January 17, 2018
Investigators at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center have developed a simple, swallowable test for early detection of Barrett's esophagus that offers promise ...

Scientists zoom in to watch DNA code being read

January 17, 2018
Scientists have unveiled incredible images of how the DNA code is read and interpreted—revealing new detail about one of the fundamental processes of life.

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Tom_Hennessy
not rated yet May 09, 2013
It has been shown red hair pigment contains high levels of the metal iron. Rather than the pheomelanin itself causing the problem , the metal used , when pheomelanin is produced , iron ? Irish and Scots have the 'Celtic curse' , hemochromatosis , iron overload ? The red hair one finds , the pheomelanin , could be secondary to the fact , they have increased iron stores , producing pheomelanin.
Tom_Hennessy
not rated yet May 09, 2013
"prooxidant activities of pheomelanin result from pheomelanin-metal complexation"

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.