Doctors may be able to predict which individuals are at risk for developing skin cancer, according to research published in The FASEB Journal (2010 Jun 2 [Epub ahead of print]).

According to background information provided by the authors, when a pigmentation gene called the melanocortin 1 receptor or MC1R fails to function properly, skin cells do not respond to the hormone a-MSH, which causes cells to produce dark pigmentation to protect themselves from UV rays.

The study, led by Zalfa Abdel-Malek, PhD, a researcher from the Department of Dermatology at the University of Cincinnati, focused on 21 human skin cell cultures that express MC1R in different ways. Researchers studied the cultures for expression of genetic changes of MC1R, pigment levels, and the ability to respond to a-MSH. In addition, the cell cultures were exposed to ultraviolet rays, and the amount of DNA damage and rate of its repair were measured.

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When the scientists inserted a normal version of the MC1R gene into the skin cells, they found that the cells responded properly to UV light by producing the pigment necessary to protect themselves.

“This research permits us to know our own personal risk for skin cancer,” said Gerald Weissmann, MD, editor-in-chief of The FASEB Journal. “We’ve known for a long time that smearing on sunscreen is the best way to avoid skin cancer, but never how much or what kind. The study points the way to new kinds of sunscreens that restore the skin’s ability to protect itself from DNA damage.”