The latest edition of the journal Nature has carried a surprising paper on how a skin pigment present in red-haired whites can increase their risk of melanoma.
This research was conducted by Dr. David Fischer, Principal Scientist at the Cancer centre of the Massachusetts General Hospital.
The study revealed that a pigment responsible for protection against UV radiation is lacking in this section of people and increases their risk of contacting melanoma among them. Melanin is mainly of 2 types – Eumelanin and Pheomelanin.
The former variety is present in the darker skin types and is very effective in shielding against the harmful effects of UVradiation. The latter is the pigment present in red-haired and light skin people and is less effective in shielding against UV rays.
Experiments on Mice
To improve on their findings, the scientists set up an experiment where they had genetically identical mice except for the melanin gene. One group had the eumelanin and the other the pheomelanin gene.
They activated the oncogene patches in these mice that are associated with the melanoma. Both types of mice were exposed to the same amount of UV rays. Within a few months, more than half the red hair-fair skin mice were found to have developed melanomas whereas only few dark mice were affected.
Their next concern was if the red pigment itself was a potential carcinogen. This led them to extend the experiment and remove the red pigment from the pathways of those mice. They were found to be generating unstable oxygen containing molecules that were damaging to the skin cells. Thus the conclusion was reached that it is the oxidative properties of the pigment that was associated with themelanoma formation.
The study has led to two breakthroughs on the research of melanomas. One is the possibility of manufacturing improved sunscreens for the fair skin-blondes and the other is antioxidant treatments aimed at neutralizing the acidity of the red pigment. This way 6 out of 7 melanomas can be prevented through early detection and preventive treatments.