It’s been acknowledged for some time that people with red hair and fair skin are more likely to develop skin cancer. But for the first time, medical researchers have uncovered the reason behind this connection, as well as a possible prevention plan.
Investigators from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) proved that MC1R (melanocortin 1 receptor) — the protein involved in pigmentation — is affected by a modification process called palmitoylation. But the researchers found that enhancing palmitoylation in MC1R proteins —demonstrated in a lab experiment using molecules and ultraviolet light — was shown to reduce risk of melanoma.
“We hope our study allows for the development of a pharmacological prevention strategy for red-headed people to protect their skin and let them enjoy the sun like other people,” said Dr. Rutao Cui, professor of pharmacology and dermatology at BUSM, said in a press release.
Making up 1 percent to 2 percent of the world’s population, redheads carry variants of MC1R, which increases their risk of skin cancers — the most dangerous being melanoma. According to estimates from the American Cancer Society, about 87,110 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed (about 52,170 in men and 34,940 in women) in the United States in 2017. Rates of melanoma have been rising for the last 30 years, and while it accounts for only about 1 percent of skin cancers, it is responsible for a large majority of skin cancer deaths.
“This is very exciting!” Shannon Trotter, a dermatologist who specializes in melanoma and skin cancers at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, tells Yahoo Beauty. “Research that focuses on prevention and reducing melanoma risk is much needed. This study is promising, but more research will be needed to see how we can put this into practice.”
Trotter explains that palmitoylation is a special process where proteins are changed by adding fatty acids. “This can affect the function of a protein in the body and have an impact on how our cells function,” she explains.
Jack Jacoub, MD, medical oncologist and medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells Yahoo Beauty that both cancer cells and normal cells have different pathways that are actively in progress.
“And palmitoylation is one of those pathways,” he states. “This is a pathway that is also being investigated in other types of cancer-related therapeutics, just like other pathways are being investigated. But the researchers in this study took it one step further. Mitigating or reducing the risk is the big message — it’s very interesting.”
Trotter adds that because palmitoylation is a chemical process, “we might be able to use a medication that enhances its function to have a desired effect.”
Jacoub agrees, but believes a one-a-day prescription in the name of prevention could be a “very hard sell.”
“It’s going to have to be, I imagine, some dietary influence or environmental influence that can be changed,” he concludes. “Or it may be a limited intervention that will have a long-term effect against risks.”