THURSDAY, May 9 (HealthDay News) -- 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 red hair pigment and melanoma
last fall. That study used genetically altered mice that had been
given a mutant gene that increased their risk of contracting the
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
cancer risk by leaving skin cells more vulnerable to DNA
By determining the way pheomelanin increases cancer risk, the
researchers hope to figure out a way to prevent future cases of
"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 dermatology 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 oxygen species, or
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
"I want to emphasize that we strongly believe UV is a
contributor to melanoma, and UV may actually amplify this red
pigment 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 skin cancer, 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 melanoma 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
Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for
skin cancer prevention.