Participation of the Melanocortin-1 Receptor in the UV Control of Pigmentation

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      The cloning of the melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) gene from human melanocytes and the demonstration that these cells respond to the melanocortins α-melanocyte stimulating hormone (α-MSH) and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) with increased proliferation and melanogenesis have renewed the interest in investigation the physiological role of these hormones in regulating human pigmentation. α-Melanocyte stimulating hormone and ACTH are both synthesized in the human epidermis, and their synthesis is upregulated by exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR). Activation of the MC1R by ligand binding results in stimulation of cAMP formation, which is a principal mechanism for inducing melanogenesis. The increase in cAMP is required for the pigmentary response of human melanocytes to UVR, and for allowing them to overcome the UVR-induced G1 arrest. Treatment of human melanocytes with α-MSH increases eumelanin synthesis, an effect that is expected to enhance photoprotection of the skin. Population studies have revealed more than 20 allelic variants of the MC1R gene. Some of these variants are overexpressed in individuals with skin type I or II, red hair, and poor tanning ability. Future studies will aim at further exploration of the role of these variants in MC1R function, and in determining constitutive human pigmentation, the response to sun exposure, and possibly the susceptibility to skin cancer.