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Insight Into Tanning Process Suggests Novel Way to Prevent Skin Cancer

turn on a large number of genes, causing a pigment called melanin to be produced. If cAMP levels are low, the melanocytes make red/blond melanin. If cAMP levels are high, they make brown/black melanin. The melanin is eventually discharged from melanocytes and taken up by keratinocytes. MC1R is shaped differently in red-haired people, so that MSH cannot stimulate it strongly. The result is that cAMP production stays at low levels. Less cAMP means less red/blond pigment production, which results in fair skin.

Many scientists have theorized that tanning occurs when ultraviolet radiation strikes the nuclei of melanocytes, causing DNA damage that prompts the melanocytes to produce pigment. This supposition, however, conflicted with the results of Fisher's experiments. "Our work suggested that a peculiarity in the MC1R receptor on melanocytes is responsible for a failure to tan," Fisher relates. "But that sort of change on the cell surface shouldn’t impede UV radiation from reaching the melanocyte’s DNA."

If Fisher's results were correct, the traditional picture of the biology of tanning was wrong. In a series of experiments, Fisher’s team found evidence to bolster their theory, leading to a new model of how tanning occurs.

The experiments demonstrated that, rather than acting directly on the nuclei of melanocytes, UV radiation acts on keratinocytes (the most abundant as well as superficial cells in the skin), causing them to produce and secrete MSH, which attaches to adjacent melanocytes and starts the pigment-making process.

While Fisher's model adequately explains why redheads do not tan, it isn't the only possibility. "Suppose that during the embryonic or fetal period MC1R never activated cAMP production in developing melanocytes," Fisher proposes. "Would mature melanocytes then be permanently 'crippled,' unable to respond to UV, regardless of how its signals were transmitted?”

One way to disprove that "perma
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