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Skins prone to sunburn may be capable of a normal tan

22 June 10

As the beaches of Southern Europe prepare for this summer's influx of pale skinned British sun worshippers, new research from the University of Bradford has found that redheads are just as capable of making the melanin needed for a tan as the olive skinned locals.

Scientists have always assumed that the propensity of redheads to burn is related to their inability to make melanin - the pigment which is created and stored in our skin cells to protect us against the sun's ultra-violet radiation (UVR).

But a team from the University's Centre for Skin Sciences (CSS) found that in the laboratory, pigment cells isolated from very fair (Celtic-type) skin were able to make as much - and in one case up to five times more - melanin than cells from olive (Italian-type) skin, when cultured under identical conditions. However, the fair skin cells did show a higher inflammatory response to UVR than their olive-skinned counterparts. The research, in part funded by the Wellcome Trust, is published in the current issue of Pigment Cell and Melanoma Research.

CSS Director and the study's lead author, Professor of Cell Biology Des Tobin, says: "Research into sunburn has tended to ignore melanocytes - the cells that make melanin - as it's been assumed that was all they did. But our research has shown that in some skin types they also contribute to the inflammation that creates sunburn and it's this, rather than their ability to make melanin, that seems to be at the root of how different skins respond to the sun."

The researchers isolated melanocytes from five patients with very fair skin and from five with olive skin. Some of the cells from each patient were stimulated to create melanin and the levels measured. Others cells from each patient were subjected to UVR and levels of a pro-inflammatory chemical called prostaglandin-E2 (PGE2) measured. All the cells were able to make similar amounts of melanin, with one fair skinned patient making five times more than the other patients. However, melanocytes from patients with very fair skins made up to five  times more PGE2 than  those from olive-skinned patients.

"Our research shows that melanocytes may play a role in UVR-induced inflammation, so targeting these cells with anti-inflammatory interventions could offer a new way of protecting more vulnerable skin types from sunburn," says Professor Tobin. "Clearly something within fair skins is also preventing melanocytes from making protective melanin to prevent the harm caused by UVR and we will be focusing further research on this area."

Notes to editors:

  1. For full details of the research see: Gledhill K, Rhodes LE, Brownrigg M, Haylett AK, Masoodi M, Thody AJ, Nicolaou A, Tobin DJ. Prostaglandin-E2 is produced by adult human epidermal melanocytes in response to UVB in a melanogenesis-independent manner. Pigment Cell Melanoma Res. 2010 Jun;23(3):394-403.
  2. Professor Des Tobin holds a Chair in Cell Biology and is Associate Dean for Research and Innovation in the School of Life Sciences and Director of the Centre for Skin Sciences at the University of Bradford. 
  3. With over 30 academic researchers across pharmacology, biology, chemistry, biochemistry, physics, and medicine, the Centre for Skin Sciences (CSS) at the University of Bradford is the largest group of academics in the UK working on skin and hair. The Centre has state-of-the-art laboratories for cell culture, human tissue handling, microscopy, molecular biology and biochemistry and works closely with consultants in relevant fields from local hospitals to link with clinical practice. CSS research is supported through research councils, charities and government bodies and through industrial collaborations with the health and personal care sector.
  4. Founded in 1966, the University of Bradford is one of the UK's 'traditional' universities. It is a research-active institution, with over 80 per cent of its research being rated as either 'international' or 'world-leading' in the 2009 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).

    Known for its strong emphasis on employability skills and knowledge transfer work with businesses, the University has a truly global make up with over 20 per cent of its student population being international. The University is also a leader in sustainable development and education, and is number 7 in the 2010 Green League of the UK's greenest universities.
  5. The Wellcome Trust is a global charity dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust's breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.

22 June 10

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