For the first time, scientists have tied the gene most strongly linked to obesity and overeating to an increased risk of malignant melanoma — the most deadly form of skin cancer.
Investigators with Cancer Research UK scientists at the University of Leeds have determined people with particular variations in a stretch of DNA within the so-called FTO gene are at greater risk of developing melanoma.
Past studies have found FTO gene defects are an important genetic risk factor for obesity and overeating, as well as the odds of developing type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, endometrial cancer, and other conditions. But the new research is the first to find that the gene affects a disease — melanoma — not linked to obesity.
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The results, published in Nature Genetics, suggest FTO may play a wide-ranging role in various diseases.
“This is the first time to our knowledge that this major obesity gene, already linked to multiple illnesses, has been linked to melanoma,” said researcher Mark Iles, M.D., a scientist at the University of Leeds. “This raises the question whether future research will reveal that the gene has a role in even more diseases?
“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’ conclusions are based on examinations of tumors from more than 13,000 melanoma patients and almost 60,000 healthy people from around the world.
Julie Sharp, M.D., Cancer Research UK's senior science information called the findings “fascinating,” but stressed the importance of taking steps to reduce the risk of developing melanoma by limiting sun exposure.
"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,” Dr. Sharp said. “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 avoiding sunbeds. Getting a painful sunburn just once every two years can triple the risk of melanoma."
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