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Sunshine In A Bottle

Wish you could have the glow of a sun tan without any of the nasty skin damage? Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) may have a solution: a drug that can actually trick your skin into producing the pigment melanin.

The Problem With Tanning

Typically, we get tan when UV radiation (sunlight) damages the skin, setting off a set of chemical reactions that ends in the production of the dark pigment melanin, "the body's natural sunblock." The darker pigment can prevent further damage, but it can't reverse the damage already done by UV light, which contributes to problems like skin cancer down the line.

Now, scientists at MGH have developed a drug that has tricked human skin samples and the skin on mice into producing melanin, even without exposure to sunlight. Instead, the drug is rubbed directly into the skin, where it inhibits certain enzymes that stimulate the pigmentation process. The study was published in Cell Press.

[[Cultured human skin treated for eight days with a small-molecule SIK inhibitor (right) shows a significant increase in pigmentation. Areas treated with a control substance (left) or an SIK inhibitor less able to penetrate human skin (center) show no darkening.]]

More Than Meets The Eye

Unlike spray tans, which use dyes to stain dead skin cells and don't provide any protection from sunlight, Science Mag says, the new treatment would be virtually identical to a natural tan. Not only could tanning addicts get that natural glow they're looking for, but their skin will be more protected from UV light as well, given melanin's natural protective effects. Scientists believe the drug will even work for redheads, who typically just burn in sunlight, the BBC reports.

"We believe the potential importance of this work is towards a novel strategy for skin cancer prevention," said senior author David E. Fisher, Chief of Dermatology at MGH and dermatology professor at Harvard.

But the researchers won't be rolling out the new drug for mass production yet. More safety testing is needed. In the meantime, lather on the sunscreen or stay in the shade.

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Written by Stephanie Bucklin July 1, 2017

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