People with particular variations in a stretch of DNA within the FTO gene, called intron 8, could be at greater risk of developing melanoma. This research revealed that the FTO gene affects melanoma, which is not linked to obesity and body mass index (BMI).

Variations in a different part of the FTO gene, called intron 1, are already known to be the most important genetic risk factor for obesity and overeating. These variants are linked to BMI, which is a measure of a person’s shape based on their weight and height. Having a high BMI can increase the risk of various diseases including type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, endometrial cancer, and more.

This study suggests that FTO has a more wide-ranging role than previously suspected, with different sections of the gene being involved in various diseases.

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“This is the first time to our knowledge that this major obesity gene, already linked to multiple illnesses, has been linked to melanoma. This raises the question whether future research will reveal that the gene has a role in even more diseases?” said study author Dr. Mark Iles of the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom and of Cancer Research UK.

“When scientists have tried to understand how the FTO gene behaves, so far they’ve only examined its role in metabolism and appetite. But it’s now clear we don’t know enough about what this intriguing gene does. “This reveals a hot new lead for research into both obesity-related illnesses and skin cancer.”

The researchers examined tumor samples in more than 13,000 melanoma patients and almost 60,000 unaffected people from around the world. This study was published in Nature Genetics (2013; doi:10.1038/ng.2571).

Dr. Julie Sharp, also of Cancer Research UK, said, “These are fascinating early findings that, if confirmed in further research, could potentially provide new targets for the development of drugs to treat melanoma.

“Advances in understanding more about the molecules driving skin cancer have already enabled us to develop important new skin cancer drugs that will make a real difference for patients.

“But it doesn’t detract from the importance of reducing your risk of the disease by enjoying the sun safely on winter breaks abroad, and by avoiding sun beds. Getting a painful sunburn just once every 2 years can triple the risk of melanoma.”