Rowan Frame explains how a new drug might make sunburn a thing of the past

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Following an office-bound week, I made sure to enjoy the hot weather outdoors recently. After all, vitamin D is good for us, and is produced in our bodies when our skin is exposed to sunlight. But I wasn’t as careful with sunhats and sun cream as I should have been, and returned to the office with an embarrassing stripe of red down the bridge of my nose.

It seems we’ve all done it – more than one in three Britons got sunburn last summer. And when we go abroad, half of us burn.

It doesn’t help that, culturally, we view a tan as fashionable and healthy. For many, tanning becomes an objective of going abroad with sun cream a hindrance keeping us pale.

Health advice can also seem confusing. While sunlight has some benefits, too much is dangerous and can lead to skin cancer, which is on the rise.

Recently, research into a new drug that could exceed the benefits of sun cream and fake-tan combined has hit mainstream news. It is yet to be safety tested in humans, but has the potential to tan skin naturally without need the to expose it to damaging UV rays. You get a tan without the risks. And because it’s a real tan, it helps protect skin from sunlight.

Holiday sun cream cartoon

Source: © The Hit Man

With my painful nose, I appreciate the excitement. But how does it work?

The drug prompts a cascade of biochemical reactions in skin to produce natural melanin pigment. Due to melanin’s conjugated double bonds, it is good at absorbing UV light and protects other important biomolecules from damaging UV-induced reactions.

Those of us with paler skin are more at risk of harm by UV light because our skin does not contain much melanin, and is inefficient at producing it. When we are exposed to sunlight, UV photons alter bonds in DNA, cells are destroyed, and the body responds by flooding the affected area with blood – this is burning. In some cases, mutated DNA proliferates, leading to skin cancer.

It’s been known for a while that drug molecules similar to the one that made headlines recently can induce melanin production, but it has been difficult to get the molecules to penetrate the skin. This latest development tackles the issue by altering the molecular structure of the drug to make it sufficiently lipophilic to pass through.

The scientists developing the treatment even tested it on ‘red-haired’ mice and found it darkened their skin. Like some red-haired humans, these mice are less able to produce melanin.

If this drug is developed for human use, it could be bad news for the tanning parlour business. Importantly, it could also mean no more sunburn and less of us developing skin cancer if we can’t also learn to properly protect ourselves from the sun.