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Scientists Link "Fat Gene" to Skin Cancer for the First Time

Update Date: Mar 04, 2013 10:53 AM EST

A new study revealed that a gene previously linked to obesity and overeating may also increase the risk of a deadly form of skin cancer.

A new study, published in the journal Nature Genetics, linked a specific section of FTO or "fat gene" to an increased risk of developing malignant melanoma.

Researchers analyzed tumor samples of more than 13,000 malignant melanoma patients and 60,000 unaffected people worldwide.

They found that people with the particularly variations in a stretch of DNA within the FTO gene called the intro 8 could be at greater risk of developing melanoma.

Researchers said that past studies linking the FTO gene with obesity found that variants in the section called intro 1 are associated with being overweight and overeating. And while several other diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, womb (endometrial) cancer, have been linked to the gene as well as to having a high body mass index, researchers say that the latest study is the first to link the obesity gene with a specific disease independently of weight. The findings suggest that the gene may play a wider role in determining health than originally thought, with different sections of the gene being involved 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. This raises the question whether future research will reveal that the gene has a role in even more diseases?" study author Dr. Mark Iles, a Cancer Research UK scientist at the University of Leeds, said in a statement.

"When scientists have tried to understand how the FTO gene behaves, so far they've only examined its role in metabolism and appetite," he added. "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."

Dr. Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK's senior science information manager, said in a news release that if the latest findings are confirmed, the study "could potentially provide new targets for the development of drugs to treat melanoma," she said.

"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," Sharp said.

However, Sharp noted that the best way to prevent melanoma is to avoid damage caused by too much sun exposure and tanning beds, adding that getting a sunburn just once every two years can triple the risk of melanoma. 

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