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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 Oct 19;101(42):15076-81. Epub 2004 Oct 11.

Melanin acts as a potent UVB photosensitizer to cause an atypical mode of cell death in murine skin.

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Departments of Therapeutic Radiology, Genetics, and Dermatology, and Yale Comprehensive Cancer Center, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT 06520-8040, USA.


Melanin protects the skin against DNA damage induced by direct absorption of sunlight's UV radiation. Yet, irradiating melanin in vitro or in cultured cells also generates active oxygen species such as superoxide, which can indirectly induce oxidative base lesions and DNA strand breaks. This photosensitization is greater for pheomelanin (yellow and red melanin) than for eumelanin (brown and black). The in vivo photosensitizing ability of melanin is unknown. We used congenic mice of black, yellow, and albino coat colors to investigate the induction of DNA lesions and apoptosis after exposure to predominantly UVB (280-320 nm) or UVA (320-400 nm) radiation. Cyclobutane pyrimidine dimers induced by direct UVB absorption were equal in all three strains, as was apoptosis measured as sunburn cells or as keratinocytes containing active caspase-3. However, terminal deoxynucleotidyltransferase-mediated dUTP nick end-labeling (TUNEL)-positive cells were approximately 3-fold more frequent in black and yellow mice after UVB or UVA irradiation than in albino. In epidermal sheets, TUNEL-positive cells lined the upper portion of the hair follicle, consistent with UV-induced photosensitization by melanin in the hair shaft. Because the concentration of eumelanin in black mice was three times that of pheomelanin in yellow mice, pheomelanin had 3-fold greater specific activity. We conclude that UV-irradiated melanin, particularly pheomelanin, photosensitizes adjacent cells to caspase-3 independent apoptosis, and this occurs at a frequency greater than the apoptosis induced by direct DNA absorption of UV. Melanin-induced apoptosis may contribute to the increased sensitivity of individuals with blonde and red hair to sunburn and skin cancer.

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