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Scientists identify a gene variation linked to a higher number of mutations in skin cancers

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Posted July 16, 2016

Everybody knows that some genetic factors can contribute for the progression of cancer. Scientists are trying to identify these genes so that risks of developing a certain cancer can be managed in a better way. A new research performed by a team of scientists from the University of Leeds and Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute found genes behind red hair, pale skin and freckles are related to a higher number of genetic mutations in skin cancers.

A gene, which is typically associated with red hair, pale skin and freckles was linked to a higher number of genetic mutations in skin cancers. Image credit: Joe Mabel via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

A gene, which is typically associated with red hair, pale skin and freckles was linked to a higher number of genetic mutations in skin cancers. Image credit: Joe Mabel via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

In fact, this study showed that having these gene variants is equivalent of an extra 21 years of sun exposure. For example, a red hair-associated MC1R gene variant increases the number of mutations in melanoma skin cancer even for people who are not red-haired. However, people with red hair, freckles, pale skin and a strong tendency to burn in the sun should be more careful with sun exposure. Scientists say that this is the first research ever to prove that this gene can be associated to higher risk of skin cancer and this knowledge can help evaluating such risks better.

Scientists analysed data-sets of tumour DNA sequences collected from more than 400 people, which revealed that people carrying this gene variant face 42% higher risk of developing sun-associated mutations in tumours. Interestingly, research was conducted using data that is publicly available, which shows how valuable such information sharing is. Currently it is believed that red-haired people face higher risk of skin cancer because a specific skin pigment allows more ultraviolet light to penetrate and damage DNA in the skin. It may be true, but now it is evident that MC1R gene variation is also an important factor, which may not be related to UV as much.

Dr Julie Sharp, one of the authors of the study, said: “For all of us the best way to protect skin when the sun is strong is to spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm, and to cover up with a t-shirt, hat and sunglasses. And sunscreen helps protect the parts you can’t cover; use one with at least SPF15 and four or more stars, put on plenty and reapply regularly”. People with red hair and people who tend to burn rather than tan, have moles and freckles, and have fair skin, hair or eyes should be especially careful with sun exposure.

Knowing a specific gene which takes part in skin cancer progression is very important. However, since not only red-haired people have this gene variation, most of people will not know they are facing higher risk. Therefore, everyone should be careful with exposure to the sun and should follow doctor recommendations.

Source: leeds.ac.uk

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