Why Some People Are More at Risk of Melanoma: A HealthCentral Explainer

by Jacqueline Ho Content Producer

Risk of developing melanoma may be due to a genetic defect predominantly inherited by people with fair-colored skin, according to a new study.

Previous research has shown that a receptor in the skin called melanocortin1 (MC1R) helps the skin produce ultraviolet-blocking melanin as a form of protection when skin is exposed to UV rays.

When people inherit defects in MC1R their skin does not have the natural protection against the sun’s rays by melanin. The new study, conducted by scientists at the University of Kentucky, examined other ways—besides affecting the amount of melanin production—by which MC1R defects may contribute to the development of melanoma.

The researchers found that defects in MC1R inhibit the body from repairing existing DNA damage in the skin from UV rays, which can lead to a greater risk of developing cancerous mutations.

Defects in MC1R are more likely to be inherited by people who tend to burn easily and not tan well. They should take extra precautions when it comes to UV exposure from the sun or tanning beds, researchers said.

The findings of the study, published in the journal Molecular Cell, suggest that identifying people who have a genetic predisposition for melanoma may help save lives.

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, from which about 9,000 people die in the U.S. every year. In a recent report, acting surgeon general Dr. Boris D. Lushniak said that more action needs to be taken to reduce exposure to harmful rays of the sun and tanning beds.

That report noted that rates of melanoma have increased more than 200 percent from 1973 to 2011 and that it has become one of the most common cancers among teenagers and young adults. Approximately 6,000 new cases of melanoma every year can be attributed to tanning beds, which are used by nearly a third of white women ages 16 to 25, according to the report.

While people can help themselves by avoiding tanning beds and controllable risk factors for skin cancer, researchers involved in the study said that further research into the molecular link between MC1R and DNA repair may lead to new melanoma-preventive treatments, such as more effective types of sunblock.

In the meantime, the surgeon general’s report recommended the following five ways by which individuals and businesses can help decrease skin cancer:

  • Increase opportunities for sun protection in outdoor settings.

  • Provide people with the information they need to make informed choices about UV exposure.

  • Promote policies that advance the national goal of preventing skin cancer.

  • Reduce harms from indoor tanning.

  • Strengthen research and evaluation related to skin cancer prevention.






Jacqueline Ho
Meet Our Writer
Jacqueline Ho

Jacqueline is a former content producer for HealthCentral. She is a multimedia journalist with a bachelor's degree in English Literature and a master's in Broadcast Journalism and Public Affairs.