SYDNEY, Australia - Researchers at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, a part of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, have devised a genetic test for determining whether a person has a high risk of developing skin cancer.

Having identified four genetic variations in the gene melancortin-1 receptor (MC1R) that are closely associated with skin cancers, the researchers and the university now are discussing the development of a commercial test.

If a test is devised, Australians, particularly those living in the state of Queensland, would be the greatest beneficiaries. This country has the highest per capita rate of skin cancer in the world and Queensland has the highest rate of any of the Australian states (60 percent of Queensland residents eventually develop some form of skin cancer).

Rick Sturm, who devised the technique with Neil Box and James Palmer in collaboration with the genetic epidemiology group led by Nicholas Martin from the Queensland Institute for Medical Research, said the possibility of commercialization had been discussed with marketing executives at the university.

He said he personally was not comfortable with the concept of commercializing the research, which had been published in a recent issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, as the process involved interference with his free communication with other scientists.

But there were other problems involved in commercializing a test, including the fact that another party owned the patent to MC1R and that there is uncertainty if there is a market for the test, he said.

Sturm said that there were a number of variants of the MC1R gene, but the research had identified only three or four variants that were linked to skin cancer. Of those who developed melanomas, 75 percent had those variants.

If an individual had one of the variants then he has twice the usual risk factor of skin cancer. With two variants, there is four or five times the usual risk factor.

That research finding was not surprising. Those with two variants already were likely to have red hair and fair skin, and it had been known for years that red hair and fair skin were linked with skin cancer.