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Drug that induces tanning could protect against melanoma

Published on 16/06/17 at 09:52am

People will often go to extraordinary lengths to achieve tanned skin but researchers have found a potential method that does not involve the sun. Researchers have used small molecules to activate the pigmentation pathway in mice and small samples of human skin, leading to the appearance of darker skin.

The potential uses for such a drug are not aimed at the aesthetics market but at the prevention of skin cancer, one of the most common forms of cancer globally. It is hoped that the action of the drug could be included in sun creams, to provide double protection against the sun – by encouraging darkening of the skin whilst also providing further protection against UV rays.

The darkening pigmentation of the skin is caused by the production of the brown form of melanin being produced in the skin, which acts as a natural protection against the sun’s rays. The tanning process is kick-started by damage to skin cells that spurs on the production of melanin.

The study was able to bypass the need for such damage by using salt-inducible kinases (SIKs) to activate pigmentation in skin. When the molecules were applied to skin, it was found to darken the skin significantly and progressively over continued application. Once the process was stopped, the skin returned to regular pigmentation after a period of over a week, as the skin naturally renewed itself.

"The activation of the tanning/pigmentation pathway by this new class of small molecules is physiologically identical to UV-induced pigmentation without the DNA-damaging effects of UV," says David E. Fisher, Chief of the Department of Dermatology at MGH who led the study. "We need to conduct safety studies, which are always essential with potential new treatment compounds, and better understand the actions of these agents. But it's possible they may lead to new ways of protecting against UV-induced skin damage and cancer formation."

Further studies will need to be conducted before this could conceivably be used in humans. SIK proteins interfere with the MITF gene, which can cause cancer. In the mouse studies conducted, there have been so signs that this potential risk has occurred.

Ben Hargreaves

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