Red hair linked to skin cancer mutations

A gene variant common in people with red hair, pale skin and freckles has been linked to a higher number of genetic mutations in skin cancers.

This is one of the first examples of a common genetic profile – such as red hair – having a large impact on a cancer genome. The results could help to identify people at higher risk of developing skin cancer.

Wellcome-funded researchers analysed tumour DNA sequences from more than 400 people. They found an average of 42 per cent more mutations in tumours from people with the MCR1 gene variant.

The effect of the mutations can be compared to an extra 21 years of sun exposure. 

Even a single copy of the MCR1 gene variant increased the number of mutations in melanoma skin cancer. People with red hair have two copies, which affects the type of melanin pigment they produce and causes freckles and pale skin.

Although red-haired people are more likely to be affected, many non-red haired people also carry a copy of the variant. The study supports the idea that everyone needs to be careful about sun exposure.

Read more about the research in the Sanger Institute press release.