Column: Creating A Human Tan Inside The Lab

August 6, 2017

[Written by Dr. David E. Fisher]

Like many of my Northeast neighbors here in the U.S., I look forward to the warmth of the summer months during the cold and snowy winters. But as a physician and scientific researcher, I also view summer as a time that poses a significant population health risk: damaging UV radiation from the sun.

Recently, my colleagues and I at Massachusetts General Hospital discovered a way to turn on the protective tanning process in the skin, far away from the reach or rays of the sun.

But let’s back up. We know that human skin comes in all different shades. As dermatologists, we speak in pigments. In people with red or blonde pigments – or fair-skinned individuals – we see a significantly higher incidence of some of the deadliest forms of skin cancer. We see a lower incidence in those with darker skin. Regular use of sunscreen can help us all try to avoid UV exposure.

The human body also tries to “help” by turning exposed skin darker as a barrier against harmful UV rays, although this same UV damage is also associated with increased skin cancer risk. But there is reason to believe that a combination of dark melanin pigment together with UV protective sunscreen may provide even better protection.

In a collaboration with chemists at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, we developed a compound capable of penetrating human skin and increasing skin pigmentation. This specific class of molecules produced significant darkening of skin samples in the lab, following eight days of daily, topical administration.

While the darkening was visually obvious, under the microscope, we could also see that more melanin or dark pigment was evident near the skin surface. It’s what you might see in someone with a traditional tan. This time though, it was seen inside a petri dish, inside a Boston lab.

The compound also darkened the skin of redhaired, light-skinned mice. When the dosage was taken away, the skin lightened normally, allowing the tan to fade within a week or so.

This effort for me has been more than 10 years in the making – and the work continues today. Skin is the most common organ in the body to be afflicted with cancer in light-skinned people and the majority of cases are thought to be associated with UV radiation.

At present time, we have not yet measured cancer protection for this exact compound. Safety testing will be needed and then early clinical trials with patient participants. If it is safe and shows efficacy in people it may one day be used as part of – or in conjunction with – your bottle of sunscreen.

David E. Fisher, MD, PhD is an internationally known researcher, clinician and academic, who is chief of the Massachusetts General Hospital [MGH] Department of Dermatology. He also serves as director of the MGH Cutaneous Biology Research Center and director of the Melanoma Center at MGH. A professor of Dermatology and of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Fisher’s research has focused on understanding the molecular and genetic events which underlie formation of melanoma as well as skin pigmentation. As a clinician, he has worked to translate these understandings into advances in diagnosis, treatment and prevention of human diseases related to the skin and associated disorders. He recently served for three years as President of the Society for Melanoma Research, the largest international society dedicated to the study of melanoma.


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