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Genetic discovery reveals whose skin will burn in the sun

Ten new genetic regions that may dictate whether a person’s skin will tan or burn when exposed to the sun have been identified by researchers at King’s College London.

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Ten new genetic regions that may dictate whether a person’s skin will tan or burn when exposed to the sun have been identified by researchers at King’s College London. As well as revealing how skin will react in the sun, the genetic regions also highlight individuals who may be more susceptible to developing skin cancer. 

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in European populations, with more 150,000 new cases being diagnosed in the UK every year. The skin’s tendency to sunburn rather than tan is known to be a major risk factor for skin cancer but there is great variability between individuals when it comes to getting sunburnt.

Mario Falchi and Alessia Visconti of King’s Department of Twin Research, together with colleagues from across the world, now identify ten new genetic variations that may indicate whether a person’s skin will tan or burn when exposed to the sun.  

The team analysed genetic variation in 176,678 individuals of European ancestry, 120, 000 of whom were from the UK Biobank, who self-reported on their tendency to tan or burn. This ranged from those who reported that they always burnt and never tanned, to those that tanned without burning. 

This allowed them to pinpoint ten new genetic regions affecting the skin’s tendency to sunburn. By looking at one of these regions, which has previously been associated with melanoma, the team suggest that variants in this area may increase the risk of developing skin cancer by directly reducing tanning ability.

Alessia Visconti, first author on the paper, says ‘This research is the largest genetic study to date of skin’s tendency to tan or burn, and has doubled the number of genetic regions known to be involved in this feature.’

Mario Falchi, lead author on the study, says, ‘Our findings provide a set of genes that now need to be further explored to understand their contribution to increased risk of skin cancer.

‘The work also highlights the value in biomedical research of large volunteer-based studies like the UK Biobank.’

This work is published in Nature Communications.