Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Red Hair Gene Is a Melanoma Risk for Us All

By Stephen Luntz

The association between red hair and melanoma is well-known, but the gene responsible can endanger others as well.

“We’ve known for a while that people with variations in the main “red hair” gene, MC1R, are at a higher risk of melanoma because they have lower amounts of protective pigment in their skin,” says Dr Ken Dutton-Regester of QIMR Berghofer.

“Until now, exactly how else these variants in MC1R might contribute to the development of melanoma has been unclear. We have found they are associated with a reduced ability to correctly regulate cell growth. This study opens up new avenues for research.”

Dutton-Regester says his work has been focused on precursors to melanoma, but the P10 protein, with which MC1R interacts, exists in some other cancers as well. He considers an investigation of whether this makes redheads more vulnerable to these cancers a possible avenue for future research, but is not aware of epidemiological evidence to support the theory.

While redheads are most vulnerable to melanoma, Dutton-Regester says many people with dark hair and the capacity to tan have variants of the MC1R gene that may make them more vulnerable to cancer than those with the standard form.

Indeed, 70% of Australians have one variation or another of this gene, and the melanoma risk is heightened by up to 300% for some who tan rather than burn. “I have heard tests can be done for $400 for variants of MC1R,” Dutton-Regester says, “but the main issue is that everyone needs to be sun-safe”.

QIMR Berghofer was known as the Queensland Institute of Medical Research until it received a $50 million donation from property developer Clive Berghofer in August, which is believed to be the largest single donation ever made by an Australian.