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Boston researchers develop safe way to tan that protects skin

A new compound tans skin without harmful UV rays, and can also protect the skin from cancer.
tanning on a beach
Researchers at MGH and Dana-Farber have developed a way to tan skin without the harmful UV rays. Photo: Pixabay

As the weather warms up, people flock to the beach to enjoy the sand, surf and, of course, sun. A tan can be the marker of a weekend well spent, but it can also lead to health problems as UV rays increase the risk of skin cancer.

But your tan of the future may actually protect you from skin cancer, thanks to researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Researchers have developed molecules to tan skin without the damaging effects of UV radiation. This method goes beyond your usual bottle tan, though, because it causes skin to produce a dark form of melanin that actually protects against cancer-causing rays.

The study on the process was published in Tuesday’s issue of Cell Reports and builds on a 2006 study that induced tanning in red-haired mice.

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

In that 2006 study, a topical compound called forskolin was applied to the mice, resulting in a tan and the production of a skin pigment called eumelanin, which protects against UV rays.

But when the researchers tried to replicate the tan on human skin, it didn’t work — most likely because human skin is five times thicker than that of mice, researchers said — so they tried again.

This time, researchers developed new molecules that get the tanning protein ever deeper into the epidermis and voila, the skin appeared darker after eight days of daily, topical administration.

skin tanning

(Cultured human skin which on the far right has been treated for eight consecutive days and appears darker. On the left, it has been treated with a control or the substance less able to penetrate human skin and shows no change. Photo: Department of Dermatology/MGH)

“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 Dr. David Fisher, chief of dermatology at MGH and both studies’ leader, in a statement.

The pigmented skin is “physiologically identical to UV-induced pigmentation without the DNA-damaging effects of UV,” he said.

The team still needs to conduct safety studies, which Fisher said are always essential with new treatment compounds, so that they can better understand the acting agents.

“But it’s possible they may lead to new ways of protecting against UV-induced skin damage and cancer formation,” he added.

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