Boston skin cancer researchers may have found the key to truly sunless tanning.
Working with mice genetically engineered to have red hair and pigment-producing cells on their skin, Dr. David Fisher and his colleagues from Massachusetts General Hospital discovered a way to block a molecular switch that turns off the natural synthesis of melanin, the pigment in dark-skinned people that protects them from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Mice given a drug to disable the switch had significantly darker skin after five days compared to mice that did not have the drug applied to their skin The study findings are reported today in the journal Genes & Development.
By blocking this set of brakes on melanin production in humans, the researchers believe it may be possible to protect people’s skin in two ways. First, their skin could darken without being exposed to the sun, and second, darker skin could make them less vulnerable to damage from the sun. Sun exposure causes skin cancer.
The drug used on the mice does not penetrate human skin, so the challenge is to find a drug that could be absorbed by human skin and safely block the enzyme that switches off melanin production. Potential drugs are being screened, Fisher said in an interview, but the work remains in the laboratory for now.
“At this stage from mice, what we see looks good,” said Fisher, who is chief of dermatology at Mass. General. “We now have a target that would stimulate pigmentation.”
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