Uveal melanoma (UM) is a global disease which especially occurs in elderly people. Its incidence varies widely between populations, with the highest incidence among Caucasians, and a South-to-North increase in Europe. As northern Europeans often have blond hair and light eyes, we wondered whether iris colour may be a predisposing factor for UM and if so, why. We compared the distribution of iris colour between Dutch UM patients and healthy Dutch controls, using data from the Rotterdam Study (RS), and reviewed the literature regarding iris colour. We describe molecular mechanisms that might explain the observed associations. When comparing a group of Dutch UM patients with controls, we observed that individuals from Caucasian ancestry with a green/hazel iris colour (Odds Ratio (OR) = 3.64, 95% Confidence Interval (CI) 2.57-5.14) and individuals with a blue/grey iris colour (OR = 1.38, 95% CI 1.04-1.82) had a significantly higher crude risk of UM than those with brown eyes. According to the literature, this may be due to a difference in the function of pheomelanin (associated with a light iris colour) and eumelanin (associated with a brown iris colour). The combination of light-induced stress and aging may affect pheomelanin-carrying melanocytes in a different way than eumelanin-carrying melanocytes, increasing the risk of developing a malignancy.
Keywords: epidemiology; eye diseases; iris colour; melanin; oncology; uveal melanoma.