A gene associated with obesity and overeating is also linked to the most fatal skin cancer, malignant melanoma.

The finding came from a new study conducted by Cancer Research UK experts at the University of Leeds, England, and was published in Nature Genetics.

Individuals with certain variations in a stretch of DNA within the FTO gene, known as intron 8, may have a higher chance of developing melanoma, according to the results.

Scientists have known that the most critical genetic risk factor for obesity and overeating are variations in a different part of the FTO gene, referred to as intron 1.

In 2010, researchers at the Medical Research Council (MRC), UK, demonstrated that overactivity of the gene FTO leads to overeating and obesity.

These variants are associated with BMI (body mass index), which calculates a person’s shape by using their height and weight. People with high BMIs may have a raised risk of a range of diseases, such as kidney disease, type 2 diabetes, womb (endometrial) cancer and a host of other problems.

The current study, however, is the first to demonstrate that the gene plays a role in the development of melanoma, a disease which is not associated with obesity and BMI.

The report implies that FTO plays a more wide-ranging part than experts believed in the past, with different areas of the gene being linked to a range of diseases.

Dr Mark Iles, Cancer Research UK scientist at the University of Leeds and author of the research, 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?”

A study from 2010 suggested that the FTO gene increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Other research on the FTO gene has only observed its importance in metabolism and appetite, the authors said. However, it is now obvious that scientists do not completely understand all that this gene does.

“This reveals a hot new lead for research into both obesity-related illnesses and skin cancer,” Iles added.

Experts gathered and analyzed data on tumor samples from over 13,000 melanoma patients and nearly 60,000 controls (people with no melanoma) from all over the world.

Malignant melanoma is the fifth most prevalent cancer among people in the UK. Each year, there are about 12,800 novel cases and approximately 2,200 deaths resulting from the disease.

“These are fascinating early findings that, if confirmed in further research, could potentially provide new targets for the development of drugs to treat melanoma,” explained Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information manager.

Experts have already been able to create new crucial treatments for skin cancer that will have a considerable impact on patients, because of the progress in understanding more about the molecules that drive skin cancer.

Sharp concluded:

“But it doesn’t detract from the importance of reducing your risk of the disease by enjoying the sun safely on winter breaks abroad and avoiding sunbeds. Getting a painful sunburn just once every two years can triple the risk of melanoma.”

Previous research suggested that the risk of skin cancer from tanning beds is two times higher than spending the same length of time in the summer sun.

Written by Sarah Glynn