Research

There May (Someday) Be a Way to Reduce Redheads’ Risk of Skin Cancer

According to Boston University research.
Red hair

Photo via istock.com/ljubaphoto

Boston University researchers may have found a way to someday protect redheads’ skin from melanoma—aside from heaping on piles of SPF 100.

Redheads owe their unique coloring—and their heightened risk of skin cancer—to a variant in a protein receptor crucial to human pigmentation. The receptor, called melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R), is involved in the production of melanin, a pigment that protects the skin from sun damage, as well as in DNA repair after UV exposure. In people with red hair, fair skin, and poor tanning ability, disruption in MC1R activity appears to mean a greater risk of melanoma.

In a study published in Nature, Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) scientists detail a technique that could potentially roll back that cancer risk. A process called palmitoylation controls MC1R signaling, allowing the protein to do its job and protect the skin. So, BUSM researchers wondered, could catalyzing palmitoylation in redheads restore the normal function of MC1R?

Using mouse models, the researchers tested the impact of a molecule that kickstarts palmitoylation. After exposing mice to UV light, they found that animals treated with the molecule developed melanoma far less frequently than members of an untreated control group. The technique would next need to be studied and replicated in humans, a process likely involving lengthy clinical trials, but the preliminary findings look promising.

“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 authors say in a statement.


Jamie Ducharme Jamie Ducharme, Health Editor at Boston Magazine jducharme@bostonmagazine.com


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