Redheads' Melanoma Risk Can Be Reduced by Altering Specific Protein

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People with red hair tend to have a greater health risk from sun exposure, and for developing skin cancer. But now researchers at Boston University report that they've found a way to potentially reduce that risk by altering a protein involved with pigmentation in humans.

Scientists at BU's School of Medicine learned that this protein, called Melanocortin 1 Receptor, or MC1R, "is affected by a special modification process called palmitoylation," according to a BU news release, and that by "enhancing palmitoylation in the variant MC1R proteins of redheads cancer risk can be reduced."

The findings of the study, titled "Palmitoylation-dependent activation of MC1R prevents melanomagenesis," were published today in the journal Nature

The basis of the work centers on how MC1R is affected by UV radiation. In mouse studies, the researchers, led by co-lead authors Bo Zhu, Chengqian Yin and Shuyang Chen, from the Medical School's Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, "used a small molecule which could increase palmitoylation of MC1R named palmostatin B, and then exposed the model to UV light. The control group, without palmostatin B treatment, was also exposed to the UV light and showed a significant higher rate of developing melanoma."

The results, the authors wrote, "highlight a central role for MC1R palmitoylation in pigmentation and protection against melanoma."

Redheads comprise between one and two percent of the world's population, or roughly 150 million people, with the trait being most prevalent in Scotland, Ireland and Scandinavia.

In 2016, there were roughly 76,400 cases of melanoma (pictured) and 10,100 Americans died from the disease, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in its July 2016 report.