JUN 14, 2017 1:40 PM PDT

Scientists May Have Perfected 'Tan-in-a-Bottle'

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

Looking for a realistic tan but don’t want to risk burning or skin cancer? Well here’s the best two-for-one deal of the century: Scientists have created a drug that actually tricks the skin into tanning naturally while also making skin less sensitive to UV radiation caused by the sun.

Image credit: Pixabay.com

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the leading cause of skin cancer, also known as melanoma. To prevent this, doctors often advise people to avoid tanning beds, and always apply sun protection factor (SPF) when going outside. But people are generally quite bad at following this advice - just take a look at any beach and you’ll be bound to find a few sun-worshippers and sunscreen rebels.

To help lower the risk of melanoma induced by the sun, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital developed a drug that mimics the sun’s rays to induce skin to produce melanin - a pigment molecule that acts like natural sunscreen.

"It has a potent darkening effect,” said Dr. David Fisher, one of the researchers of the study. "Under the microscope it's the real melanin, it really is activating the production of pigment in a UV-independent fashion."

For people who are enamoured with a tanned complexion, this is absolutely the real deal. Tans delivered by “fake bakes” and other artificial tanners are more like skin “paint” - it coats the surface of the skin with a temporary color. By contrast, the drug stimulates the body to actually produce melanin to darken the skin. This would have the effect of being more natural-looking and longer-lasting. And this is achieved without exposing the body to harmful radiation from the sun or tanning beds.

But make no mistake about it - the team did not set out to create the best natural-looking tan. Rather, they were motivated to protect the skin from cancer. "Our real goal is a novel strategy for protecting skin from UV radiation and cancer,” said Dr. Fisher.

And people with more melanin pigment seemed to be more protected from the cancer effects of sun radiation. Think about your fair-skinned friends who burn way too easily in the sun, even if they’ve slathered on sunscreen. The drug could provide a means for these people, even redheads, to have an extra source of protection from the sun. "Dark pigment is associated with a lower risk of all forms of skin cancer - that would be really huge,” Dr. Fisher said.

But gingers who want to sign up for the drug will have to wait. The drug has to undergo more testing to reveal any hidden health consequences. For example, if the drug affects melanin in the skin, could it also affect melanin in other parts of the body, such as the eyes or hair color? On the flip side, further testing could reveal other benefits of having skin-deep sun protection, such as anti-aging properties.

Additional source: BBC

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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