An international research project published in the journal Nature Genetics has identified new variations in our genetics that might make some of us more vulnerable to malignant melanoma than others. The position of these genetic differences was also of interest. While some newspapers ran with headlines claiming there to be a genetic link between skin cancer and obesity, owing to their location on the genome, this is not strictly correct. Here we take a look at the findings and clear up the confusion.

The study

Researchers studied the genetic information of people who experienced malignant melanoma with those who didn’t and aimed to determine whether certain single letter differences in DNA – known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) – occurred more commonly in participants with this form of skin cancer. The study involved 1353 people with melanoma and 3566 people without.

The Study’s Results

Three SNPs in a gene known as FTO were identified that increased the risk of developing melanoma and one of these was associated with an increase in odds of 32%. SNPs in other parts of the FTO gene have previously been shown to be linked to obesity. However, the particular SNP that appeared to increase the risk of skin cancer so significantly was not associated with body mass index in the participants and the link to cancer remained even when this marker of body weight was controlled for.

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The conclusion

In conclusion the research has identified an area of the genome that is linked to the risk of developing melanoma, which happens to be in the same region as genetic variations that explain differences in bodyweight. However, those genetic differences associated with skin cancer are not the same as those for obesity. This new information suggests that the FTO gene could have a more varied role than previously thought. While the study was looking to identify whether there was an association between particular SNPs and malignant melanoma, it is unable to prove that these were the cause of skin cancer in these people; further research is needed to explore this issue, which may help to develop new treatments for the condition.

Even if some of us are more susceptible to skin cancer, it is important for us all to protect our skin from UV rays – avoid the use of sun beds, stay out of the sun when at its hottest, cover up when in the sun and apply adequate sunscreen to exposed areas of skin.