This article was first published on BBC News
A gene previously shown to be linked to obesity may also increase the risk of a deadly form of skin cancer, say researchers writing in Nature Genetics.
Analysis of data from 73,000 people, led by the University of Leeds, found a specific section of the “fat gene” was associated with malignant melanoma.
It is the first time the gene has been linked with a specific disease independently of weight.
The results suggest a wider role for the gene than originally thought.
Malignant melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK with about 12,800 new cases and about 2,200 deaths each year.
An international team analysed genetic data from the tumours of 13,000 malignant melanoma patients and 60,000 unaffected individuals.
They found that those with particular variations in a stretch of DNA within the “fat gene” or FTO gene, called intron 8, could be at greater risk of developing melanoma.
Previous research linking the FTO gene with obesity found that variants in a section called intron 1 are linked with being overweight and overeating.
Several other diseases have been linked to the gene but also to having a high body mass index.
This is the first time that researchers have found a link between the FTO gene and a disease which is not linked to obesity and BMI.
It opens up a new direction in work looking at how the gene functions as until now the focus has been on its effects on weight gain and factors such as regulating appetite.
Study author, Dr Mark Iles, a senior research fellow at the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine, said: “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?”
He added: “When scientists have tried to understand how the FTO gene behaves, so far they’ve only examined its role in metabolism and appetite.
“But it’s now clear we don’t know enough about what this intriguing gene does.”
Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information manager, said: “These are fascinating early findings that, if confirmed in further research, could potentially provide new targets for the development of drugs to treat melanoma.
“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.”
She added the best way to prevent melanoma was to avoid damage caused by too much sun exposure and sunbeds.
“Getting a painful sunburn just once every two years can triple the risk of melanoma.”