Skip the sunbed, get a real tan

09 November 2018

Skin cancer affects millions of people each year, with 7 dying per day in the UK, but 'real' fake tan could one day fight it...

The majority of skin cancers are caused by damaging UV rays from the sun, and skin cancer risk is much higher in lighter-skinned people than those with a darker complexion. This variation in both colour and risk is down to melanin, a pigment protein that gives colour to our eyes, hair, and skin.

“There’s two types of pigment that humans and animals make,” explains Jonathan Zippin, dermatologist and skin researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. “One is called eumelanin, and one is called pheomelanin. The main difference is the eumelanin is protective against cancer and the pheomelanin actually induces cancer.” The former is known as ‘good melanin’, and is brown-black in colour, whereas the latter is often called ‘bad melanin’ and is yellow-red - it’s what gives redheads their hair colour. 

“A lot of us have this melanin in our skin, even if we’re not red-haired,” continues Zippin. “It’s just we don’t notice it because that brown-black eumelanin masks that pheomelanin content. But it’s there and it has the potential to contribute some risk of skin cancer.”

Your skin cancer risk is partly down to the ratio of good melanin and bad melanin that you have in your skin. Melanin is made by cells called melanocytes which are in your skin and other parts of your body. Scientists have found that there are differences in the melanocyte cells of lighter-skinned and darker-skinned people. Zippin and his colleagues wanted to understand how these differences are controlled and recently published their initial findings in the journal Science Signaling.

A specific enzyme, they've shown, controls the ratio of good to bad melanin production in melanocytes. And by blocking this enzyme they've managed to change the ratio so that cells cultured from lighter-skinned individuals made more good melanin. In other words, the lab managed to change the colour of human skin cells from light to dark.

For those who are light skinned with a higher skin cancer risk but nevertheless still want a tan, Zippin optimistic that a treatment based on this new discovery might help guard against skin cancer in the future.

“I definitely think that would be of interest to people who are looking for a way to have darker skin tone but not necessarily run the risk of exposing them to ultraviolet light,” he says.

Other interested groups might include those who suffer from genetic pigment disorders such as albinism where pigment is completely absent form the skin and hair. In albinism, the melanocyte cells can’t produce any of the good melanin and so the person is at a very high risk of skin cancer.

“I think we’ll learn a lot more about how we can further manipulate [the effects] to change pigment and skin cancer risk,” Zippin says. “And I also think we can merge this with other known therapies to really control the system in a beneficial way.”

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