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People who never sunburn may still get melanoma

April 21, 2009 |  1:08 pm

Sunburn 

The traditional risk factors for melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, include having blond or red hair and being prone to sunburn. But a study presented today at the annual meeting of the American Assn. of Cancer Research shows that these risk factors don't tell the whole story. In fact, some dark-haired people who do not sunburn easily may have an increased risk of the disease because of a gene mutation.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania identified genetic variants that could help predict melanoma risk, especially in people not thought to be at high risk. They analyzed 779 patients with melanoma and compared them to 325 healthy people. The presence of certain variants in the MC1R gene was linked with at least a twofold increased risk of melanoma and was largely confined to those people who would not normally be considered at increased risk. People with blond or red hair who had the gene variant did not have an elevated risk.

Eventually, genetic variations will be considered when assessing an individual's risk for melanoma, the lead author of the study, Peter Kanetsky, said in a news release. However, there is no commercially available screening test for MC1R yet.

In other news from the American Assn. for Cancer Research annual meeting, which is being held in Denver this week, scientists reported disappointing news in the quest to find an easy, accurate way to detect early-stage ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer is associated with high death rates because it is often produces only mild or vague symptoms and is thus not detected until it has reached a late stage. A blood test to identify the possibility of ovarian cancer, called CA 125, has been in use for many years but produces a high rate of false results. A lot of effort has gone into research to find a more accurate blood test that would detect markers hinting at the presence of ovarian cancer. However, news from a trial of one panel of biomarkers has found that the panel may not work much better than the CA 125 test.

A consortium of researchers evaluated the performance of more than 50 markers and found a handful are somewhat accurate. But CA 125 remains the single best biomarker, said Dr. Daniel W. Cramer of Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School.

"It was disappointing that several of the panels performed no better than CA 125 alone," Cramer said in a news release. "However, several markers do seem to add value including HE4, CA 72.4, and MMP7 and measuring markers over time might also improve performance. General population screening for ovarian cancer cannot currently be recommended, but the foundations for it are becoming clearer."

The presence of a small genetic change and family history may help better define who will develop prostate cancer, according to a study presented by researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. The researchers studied 14 specific forms of genes, called alleles, among 2,893 men with prostate cancer and 1,781 healthy men. The found that the presence of each additional risk allele increased the risk of the disease by about 14%. The strongest effect was in men with a history of prostate cancer. Among men who had at least 15 of the known risk alleles for prostate cancer, 34% had an increased risk of cancer over a 20-year period. This risk increased to 45% among men who also had a family history of the disease.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

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