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Redheads’ melanoma risk may be in their genes

Pity those poor redheads. The very gene that gives them their fiery tresses also predisposes them to an increased melanoma risk that has little to do with getting sunburned, Massachusetts General Hospital researchers report in a study published online last week in the journal Nature.

Instead, it appears to be due to a mutation they carry in the melanocortin-1 receptor gene (MC1R) that’s been linked in previous research to pain sensitivity and a higher risk of Parkinson’s disease.

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The researchers compared melanoma rates in red-furred mice with the MC1R gene mutation with those who were albinos (with no skin pigment) and those who had black fur. They found that without any exposure to sunlight or ultraviolet radiation, the red mice were far more likely to develop melanoma than the other mice.

“We’ve known for a long time that people with red hair and fair skin have the highest melanoma risk,” said Dr. David Fisher, chief of the MGH department of dermatology, who conducted the research. “These new findings do not increase that risk but identify a new mechanism to help explain it.”

Early detection is the best approach for those who are at increased risk. And sun protection is still key, Fisher added. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen, cover-up at the beach, and avoid tanning salons.

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