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New Study Provides Information about Skin Cancer and Red Heads

With a recent study outlined in the Los Angeles Times, scientists are uncovering the reasons redheads, and other “non-gingers” who carry a genetic variant, are more vulnerable to developing melanoma, a potentially deadly type of skin cancer. The gene or gene variant common to redheads is often associated with the familiar red hair and freckles. This allele is associated with cancer-causing genetics that create a 42% higher risk than those without the gene variant.

Statistically, red-haired individuals comprise approximately 1% to 2% of the global population. In Scotland and Ireland, the numbers are as high as 10% to 13%. However, they comprise 16% of the population of melanoma patients. Additionally, 26% to 40% of melanoma patients carry at least one R allele of the MC1R gene that tends to develop mutations that cause cancer. This is the gene that is also recessive, so not all carrying the gene will have red hair and freckles.

Study Outline

melanoma lesionThe study was conducted by a team of cancer geneticists from the Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom. The research studied the genes of 273 melanoma patients to see if they carried the MC1R gene. Following this, they examined the genes of tumors from patients to see if there were any underlying genes that existed only in the tumor.

The study found that just over 50% of the patients who had their genes examined did not carry the problematic gene. The rest were single allele carriers — those who were not classic redheads, but had an inherited copy of the gene.

Tumors from carriers of one or both target alleles wereMelanoma,_brown_and_red_lesion_1 found to have more mutations from those taken from melanoma patients who were not identified as carriers. Those who were carriers of the MC1R variants appeared to accumulate mutations more easily.


The findings concluded that redheads and their counterparts who carried the R allele are more likely than non-carriers to develop melanoma. Researchers do say that it will take addition research to determine whether those who carry a single gene (those who had a parent with red hair and freckles) but do not exhibit the trait are as susceptible to melanoma as are redheads, who care both alleles.

Dr. Wright stresses that keeping an eye out for skin cancer is important to everyone, whether they have red hair or not. “This study points out that even if you are not red-haired with freckles, you may be at a higher risk group for skin cancer, so this is why it is essential that everyone do self-exams, as well as consult with a doctor on a regular basis.” If you would like to know more about this study, or skin cancer in general, please call us to schedule a consultation.