Drug that makes skin tan may prevent cancer

The new drug, which is rubbed onto the skin, starts the process of making melanin.

Dirk Trudeau | Jun 15, 2017

Scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital have created a topical drug that tricks the skin into producing a tan without harmful UV radiation. They hope the development could help prevent skin cancer.

The discovery is described in the June 13 issue of the journal Cell Reports.

When skin is exposed to sunlight, UV radiation sets off a series of chemical reactions that leads the production of melanin, which darkens the skin and provides a protective effect against the sun's damaging rays.

The new drug, which is rubbed onto the skin, starts the process of making melanin.

"It has a potent darkening effect," said lead researcher Dr. David Fisher, in a BBC News report. "Under the microscope, it's the real melanin, it really is activating the production of pigment in a UV-independent fashion."

Fisher has been working for the past 10 years on the way UV radiation triggers melanin production, according to the Smithsonian. While his team was able to produce a tan in mice with a topical compound, human skin is five times thicker than mouse skin and more difficult to penetrate. Now, that problem has been solved.

"Sunscreen does prevent skin cancer. It has been shown," said Fisher in the Smithsonian report. "What I think could be done is to use sunscreen that has been supplemented by something to darken the skin."

So far, tests have been performed on mice and samples of human skin. Next, scientists will learn in the new compound is safe for humans.

"I would hope that we'd be in a position to have a solid answer in terms of where this is going in three to five years," Fisher said.

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