New 'real sun-tan' drug may help prevent cancer

Sun loungers

Sun loungers

- Picture courtesy of olivier bellin / Istock.comWASHINGTON, June 14 - After 10 years of research, scientists have come up with a drug that could help people tan without exposure to the sun, potentially reducing the risk of skin cancer. The Massachusetts General Hospital team anticipates that this discovery could stop skin cancer and even slow down the development of signs of aging.

A decade ago, Fisher's team found a way to change the pigmentation of skin cells in mice from very fair to dark, which protected their cells from the type of UV damage that can lead to skin cancer. This takes a while, so the tan lasts a week or so, just like a sun-induced tan. Now, scientists have discovered a compound that could prevent the spread of melanoma cells.

Those mice were used because they have a genetic variant that doesn't allow them to tan, similar to red-headed, fair-skinned humans.

UV radiation darkens the skin by inflicting damage, which then initiates a chain of chemical reactions that ultimately leads to the production of brown melanin, the body's natural sunblock.

"We are excited about the possibility of inducing dark pigment production in human skin without a need for either systemic exposure to a drug or UV exposure to the skin", said Fisher. This provided the opportunity to "try to target that inhibitor, block it and thereby stimulate pigmentation" with a drug, Fisher says.

"Our real goal is a novel strategy for protecting skin from UV radiation and cancer", Fisher said.

But there was one problem.

Now, a decade later, the researchers have come up with a solution that they think will actually work on us - a different class of compounds that cannot only boost the pigmentation process, but also squeeze through the outer layers of our epidermis.

When a strong dose of the compound was tested in red-haired mice, it turned them black within a couple of days, just like the forskolin.

These tiny molecules work by inhibiting SIK (Salt Inducible Kinase) enzymes in the skin, which is like a 'master off switch' for melanin production.

A drug that darkens pigmentation may have uses beyond the theoretical protection against skin cancer, including to cosmetically darken skin among people with other medical conditions, said Weill Cornell Medicine's Department of Dermatology in New York's Dr Jonathan Zippin.

Now, researchers at DFCI together with Massachusetts General Hospital have developed a new class of small molecule SIK inhibitors that are optimized to penetrate the thicker human skin and induce the expression of a gene called MITF.

Despite tanning's well-known link to skin cancer, many of us simply can't resist that golden look.

The next step will be to determine whether the compounds are safe for human use.

We can't wait to see where this research goes next. "UV protection is still absolutely important".

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