- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Redheads sunburn easily, but that might not be the only reason they are at high risk of skin cancer. New research suggests the pigment that colors their skin might set them up for cancer-spurring sun damage even if they do not burn.

More than 1 million Americans develop some form of skin cancer each year. Among those most at risk are people with light skin, hair and eyes — a common combination in redheads. They are particularly prone to sunburns, a risk factor for anyone, especially if the burns occur in childhood.

Scientists long have wondered whether something else plays a role in redheads’ high risk. One theory focuses on melanin, the skin pigment that darkens with sun exposure to provide either a tan or freckles. People with red hair have a chemically different type of melanin than people with dark hair.

Duke University researchers on Sunday reported the first direct evidence that those melanin differences might be a culprit. It turns out that redheads’ melanin is more vulnerable to a type of DNA-damaging stress from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

To study the question, Duke chemistry professor John Simon turned to hair. It is very difficult to cull melanin from human skin, but the pigment is the same in hair. He bought naturally red and black hair from wig makers and, for a broader sample, offered to pay for red-haired Duke students’ haircuts in return for the clippings.

Using a special laser and microscope, Mr. Simon analyzed how the pigments reacted as they absorbed either ultraviolet B rays (UVB), which are associated with sunburn, or ultraviolet A rays (UVA), which can penetrate and damage skin even without a burn.

Both UVA and UVB light caused a photochemical reaction with the redheads’ pigment, called pheomelanin. The reaction creates oxidative stress in which oxygen molecules called free radicals are formed that damage DNA and cells in ways that, over time, can accumulate to spur cancer. In contrast, only UVB light caused that oxidative reaction with the pigment from black hair, called eumelanin.

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