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Q: Read study done in Germany that links fathers to sons gene related to melanoma genesis in families. Any more research done on it yet?

Reader from Vancouver, WA

A: Many studies have shown a genetic link, and some of the responsible genes are known (and can be tested for), but these mutations are only responsible for a small number of melanomas.

In 90% of melanomas, the genetic changes leading to cancer are somatic mutations, meaning that they were not inherited and developed from scratch in the affected person.

Here is where it gets interesting: Exposure to ultraviolet light will generate many of these mutations.  There are a few rare (really rare) genetic diseases that can make people more susceptible to this type of DNA damage.  However, the tendency toward damage is also related to skin/hair/eye color, tendency to burn, and tendency to freckle.  Essentially, having lighter colored skin, lighter colored eyes, light hair, burning easily, and freckling easily are all associated with increased rates of melanoma, most likely because these pigmentation traits all affect the relative degree of protection from ultraviolet light that your skin provides.  People with these lighter colored traits get DNA damage more easily from sun exposure than those with darker colored features. These traits are inherited.

So, most people are not going to inherit one of these familial melanoma genes that causes a major increase in risk, but an awful lot of us (myself included) do have familial traits that increase the adverse effects of ultraviolet light and leads to a small increase in risk.  This is where lifestyle matters.

You can’t choose your parents (or pick your genes), but you can do a lot things to reduce the effects of ultraviolet light.  Sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, avoiding peak overhead sun, etc, etc.

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