A laid-back approach to sun protection and increased ultraviolet (UV) exposure is driving the rise of skin cancer prevalence worldwide, with the number of melanoma cases rising faster than any other type of cancer in the last 60 years.

The damaging effects of the sun and its UV rays are poorly understood, with four in ten parents believing that a sun tan is a sign of good health.

However, it is the result of UV-induced damage within the skin, leading to a series of chemical reactions finishing with the production of eumelanin, the dark form of the melanin pigment.

While a higher concentration of eumelanin is actually protective against skin cancer, its production often requires DNA-damage-inducing UV rays. In response to this, scientists in the US have developed a drug that promotes the production of eumelanin in the absence of harmful UV light.

A true healthy glow

Skin cancer is more common in individuals with fairer skin, as those with darker skin have natural protection against UV-induced DNA damage.

This protection is due to a higher concentration of eumelanin within the skin, which can efficiently convert damaging UV energy into heat energy to reduce damaging effects.

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The main driver of eumelanin production is through the activation of MITF, a transcription factor that regulates pigment gene expression in the cell.

This new drug works by inhibiting proteins that would usually stop MITF from functioning, over-activating MITF activity and eumelanin production.

The drug causes a potent tanning effect in mice, indicating an increase in protective eumelanin concentration and a potentially decreased risk of UV damage and associated skin cancer. This effect was also observed in ‘redhead’ mice, which are less able to produce eumelanin and also have the highest genetic risk of skin cancer. 

Goodbye to fake tan?

While the main goal of this research is the discovery of a novel prevention strategy against UV radiation, this new drug has a variety of possible applications.

The end of UV damage could slow the appearance of ageing, while also providing a sun tan without any of the associated risks. Commercialisation of the drug is a long way off, as further safety tests and human studies are required before its approval.

However, if further studies mimic what has been observed so far, it could be time to say goodbye to the sunbed.