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Silver Cats May Help Cure Cancer for Humans With Red Hair

Researchers believe cats' Silver gene could help humans at highest risk of melanoma: redheads.

Lisa Richman  |  Jan 30th 2015


What the heck is a silver cat, anyway? Have you ever seen a cat whose coat has a silvery sheen to it? Or maybe you’ve noticed some cats look like they have silvery stripes running through their fur. Some may show a bit of peekaboo silver you only see when they move around.

Silver-tipped cats, silver tabbies, cats with smoke-silver undercoats ÔÇô- all these are thanks to a special gene in kitty’s DNA, called the Silver gene.

And cats who have this gene may hold the secret to preventing skin cancer in people with red hair.

Red hair? “Okay, that’s just weird,” you might say. No, actually, it’s science. We’ve known for decades that a person with fair skin and red hair has a higher risk for developing skin cancer. Redheads also are more likely to get the worst kind: melanoma.

No real news there, that’s pretty much common knowledge. Now, here comes the surprise.

Recent studies seem to suggest that simply being a redhead increases your chances of getting skin cancer, even if you avoid the sun. And this risk comes from the very pigment that causes your hair to be red (pheomelanin). Researchers recently discovered that when your body produces this pigment, something about the process actually damages your DNA.

So, yeah, we agree ÔÇô- that’s just plain weird. But true.

Now that scientists have found out a redhead’s body is actually doing this cancer-causing thing, they’re trying to figure out how to stop it. So far it has eluded them. That’s mainly because you have to understand the process that causes the damage before you can figure out how to stop it, and they haven’t figured that out yet.

Although they have stumbled upon something interesting while studying mice that share the same coloring as redheads: they discovered that if they blocked the red pigment in these mice, they also lowered their chances of getting melanoma.

"Animals, and their variation in coat colors, present the perfect naturally occurring model to study gene pathways, and in this case melanin production," says Dr. Barbara Gandolfi, research assistant professor at the Feline Genetics Laboratory at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine.

What does this have to do with cats? There’s something special about cats who have the Silver gene. According to scientists, this gene’s a tricky one. They use words like "perplexing" and "elusive" when discussing it. They’ve mapped it ÔÇô- they know where it’s located in a cat’s DNA ÔÇô- but they’re having a hard time completely understanding it. But there are characteristics the Silver gene has that make researchers think it may hold the key to the regulation of pheomelanin -ÔÇô the chemical that causes red pigment. It actually appears to significantly influence its production.

This makes sense, because the Silver gene is known as a modifier gene. It’s a melanin inhibitor, which means it reduces the amount of color that can show up in a cat’s fur.

Because of this, scientists are convinced that studying cats with silver fur can have a significant impact on treating skin cancer. The Winn Feline Foundation agrees. A nonprofit founded in 1968 by the Cat Fancier’s Association, Winn’s mission is to fund medical studies to improve cat health and welfare. And a few weeks ago, they awarded Dr. Gandolfi and the University of Missouri a $10,000 grant to identify the mutation that causes the silver coat color in cats.

“Why is this study important?” Gandolfi asks. "Because we clearly still don’t fully understand how pigmentation works, we still lack the knowledge about all factors influencing the process. If we know how to turn off pigment production, we could target in humans the same protein and reduce the expression."

But wait. The Winn Feline Foundation funds studies to improve feline health. Aren’t we talking about melanomas in humans?

Cats get skin cancer, too ÔÇô- even the really bad kind: melanoma. So this grant to develop a genetic test for silver, one of the few remaining cat colors for which there is no genetic test, benefits both our furry and our human family members. And for me, that’s a true win-win.

Many veterinary research initiatives for our companion animals have benefited animal and human alike. In fact, it may surprise you to hear that 71 of the Nobel prizes in the field of medicine over the past 100 years were awarded to studies that also benefited animals.

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About Lisa Richman: Writer, director, pilot, foodie, cat person. When she’s not on set, this director of film and video can usually be found taking photos of cats (and food) with her trusty Nikon, or cruising aloft at 3,000 feet. She’s cat mom to an opinionated Tonkinese, a hearing-impaired Siamese, and a feline fashionista. She’s also the owner of a recently launched food blog, and the Cat Writer’s 2014 Entertainment Blog, A Tonk’s Tail.