With summer here, chances are that you’ve probably spared a bit of thought for getting that sun-kissed look often associated with vigor, youth and vitality. The sad irony, of course, is that while we might associate suntanned skin with good health, prolonged sun exposure can lead to accelerated skin aging, as well as increase risks of skin cancer.
A new research project suggests that things don’t have to remain that way, though. A team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital claimed to have developed a drug that mimics sunlight to make the skin tan without the sun’s highly damaging UV radiation involved. A new chemical that mimics sunlight to produce skin tan may potentially prevent skin cancer by producing pigment that blocks harmful UV radiation. It has a potent darkening effect. Under the microscope it’s the real melanin, it really is activating the production of pigment in a UV-independent fashion. It is a noticeably an innovative approach to fake tan that “paints” the skin without the protection from melanin, and sun beds that expose the skin to UV rays.
What scientists have discovered is a small molecule that may be able to stimulate the darkening of human skin, without exposing it to potentially harmful UV radiation. This involves inhibiting an enzyme called Salt Inducible Kinase (SIK), which naturally suppresses pigmentation. By inhibiting it, pigment synthesis is instead stimulated. A variant of a gene called MC1R dictates whether a person burns or tans in the sun. In individuals who tan, the gene triggers a series of reaction during sun exposure that causes the skin cells to produce melanin. Redheads can theoretically produce the pigment in the cells but the chain reaction is not set in motion. The small molecule — dubbed SIK inhibitor — can be used to artificially turn on the process of melanin production up to the point where the MC1R gene causes blockage. When the researchers applied the chemical to a skin sample in a petri dish, they found that the latter darkened and the tan lasted days after the initial application. When they tried this on mice, the animals turned almost jet-black as early as within a day and were found to have strong protection against sunburn and cancer.
After more than a week or so, as the skin cells sloughed off the surface, the color faded just like normal tans do but the mice did not seem to suffer from other obvious side effects.
The darkly pigmented people are at significantly lower risk of developing skin cancer, as well as other indications of UV damage to skin, we suspect that the ability to stimulate pigment production minus the use of damaging UV-rays may provide the benefits without the damage from UV. In laboratory animals, it has been shown that UV-independent pigment darkening of red-haired mice does provide strong skin protection from UV.
Before this can be rolled out as a summer staple alongside beer coolers and barbecues, it is important to first determine the safety or toxicity of the agent, in order to know how best to apply it to people. If the compounds are found to be safe, the researchers then hope to identify the population of people for whom such darkening would be most helpful, before carrying out initial clinical testing.