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Gene variants increase risk of both skin cancer and obesity

11 March 2013

By George Frodsham

Appeared in BioNews 696

Scientists have found a link between skin cancer and the FTO gene, which was already associated with obesity. Variants in the DNA sequence of FTO were associated with an increased risk of malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK with about 12,800 new cases and about 2,200 deaths each year.

It is the first time that researchers have found variants of FTO associated with health problems unrelated to being overweight. Sometimes called the 'fat gene', people carrying a common variant are more likely to be overweight or obese, and FTO has also therefore been associated with weight-related health issues including diabetes.

The study looked at data from 13,000 malignant melanoma patients and 60,000 healthy individuals. The results suggest that FTO plays a more complex role in the body than previously thought.

'When scientists have tried to understand how the FTO gene behaves, so far they've only examined its role in metabolism and appetite', said Dr Mark Iles, a senior research fellow at the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine and leader of the study. He added that the link to melanoma 'raises the question whether future research will reveal that the gene has a role in even more diseases. It's now clear we don't know enough about what this intriguing gene does'.

Dr Julie Sharp, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, suggested that, if confirmed the findings might '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'.

Other gene variants have previously been linked to melanoma and susceptibility to the condition can run in the family. However, the most common cause of malignant melanoma is still considered to be exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight. Use of sunbeds is also considered a risk factor.

Dr Sharp confirmed that the best way to avoid melanoma was to avoid sunbeds and over-exposure to sunlight. 'Getting a painful sunburn just once every two years can triple the risk of melanoma', she said.

Nature Genetics | 03 March 2013
BBC News | 04 March 2013
Cancer Research UK (press release) | 03 March 2013
Mail Online | 04 March 2013


07 September 2015 - by Dr James Heather 
Recent findings linking the FTO gene to adipose cell energy use not only revealed a molecular mechanism that contributes to obesity, but they are also an exemplar of how genome-wide association study findings can make the journey to clinical relevance...
17 March 2014 - by Dr Rosie Gilchrist 
Scientists have identified a gene called IRX3 which is associated with obesity and may emerge as a serious contender as the most important 'fat gene' yet discovered...
15 April 2013 - by Hana Ayoob 
Scientists have identified four new gene variants associated with severe childhood obesity...

14 January 2013 - by Ruth Retassie 
Genes play a role in weight gain resulting from diets high in fat and sugar content, say scientists...
26 November 2012 - by Dr Nicola Davis 
A gene linked to obesity may also provide protection from major depression, say scientists...
05 November 2012 - by Maria Sheppard 
A drug which prolongs life in a form of skin cancer associated with a genetic mutation has been recommended for use on the NHS...
15 May 2012 - by Dr Louisa Petchey 
Whole genome sequencing of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, has confirmed the long held belief that greater sun exposure raises cancer risk by increasing the frequency of genetic mutation. The study also identifies one gene, PREX2, that is mutated in 14 percent of cases...

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