The study published in the medical journal Nature Genetics, shows that genetic variation in the FTO gene, which is carried by 15 percent of the population, increases melanoma risk by 16 percent.
The association study, led by the international Consortium, GenoMEL, involved University researchers Professor Graham Mann (from the University’s Westmead Millenium Institute) and Dr Anne Cust (a senior lecturer in the University’s School of Public Health) and collaborators with the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane.
The Australian collaboration contributed data on over 6000 Australians, including melanoma patients, which was combined with data from studies in Europe and the United States, giving a combined population of more than 62,000 people.
It’s the first time the FTO gene has been shown to be related to something other than Body Mass Index.
Professor Graham Mann said the discovery sheds some light on how the FTO gene works.
“We’ve known for some time that FTO has a major influence on body weight and is connected to many of the health problems that go with bodyweight but the findings of this study broaden the FTO gene’s importance to medical science,” Professor Mann said.
“We need to look more closely at how FTO controls cell growth because a better understanding of that might give us novel ways of controlling melanoma risk.
“One of the hopes for the future is that there may be medications which can be taken in the long term that reduce the risk of particular cancers like melanoma.”
Australia has the highest rate of skin cancers in the world. While melanoma is the least common form of skin cancer it is the most life threatening. In 2010, 1452 Australians died from the disease.
Professor Mann said the discovery of the link between FTO and melanoma adds to the rapidly growing list of genes associated with increased risk of the cancer.
“It is clear that there are a lot of genetic variations that increase our risk of getting cancer and in the case of melanoma we have been able to show over the last five years that there are at least 15 genes that contribute to our risk and probably a lot more,” he said.
“We are working quite hard at putting these genetic discoveries to build a profile of people who are at greater risk of getting melanoma and therefore tailoring their care and prevention.”
The study into the link between the FTO gene and melanoma was supported by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council.
Media enquiries: Rachel Gleeson 02 9351 4630, 0481 004 782