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Insight Into Tanning Process Suggests Novel Way to Prevent Skin Cancer

nently crippled" scenario would be to see if melanocytes with abnormal MC1R receptors can be coaxed into producing pigment in adult mice. To attempt this, Fisher and his associates treated the skin of red-haired, fair-skinned mice with a compound known to increase cAMP levels. The compound, called forskolin, is derived from the root of the forskohlii plant found in India. The mice involved in the experiment turned dark, proving that melanocytes in redheads aren’t inherently unable to make pigment if appropriately stimulated.

Further experiments showed that not only can red-haired mice be given tans without exposing them to UV light, but this sunless tanning process is virtually indistinguishable from that in dark-haired mice that tan naturally.

"When keratinocytes absorb melanin pigment, the pigment isn't randomly distributed within them,” Fisher explains. "It forms arcs that look like tiny umbrellas over the keratinocyte's nucleus. When we artificially caused our red-haired mice to tan, the pigment in their keratinocytes made the exact same umbrella-like pattern."

The Dana-Farber researchers also showed that tans acquired through forskolin conferred significant protection against skin cancer caused by exposure to UV light. Fisher notes that while it is unknown whether forskolin will penetrate deeply enough in human skin to activate melanocytes, these results suggest that the search for other substances that do reach deep into the skin may well have the same pigmentation effects in people.

"These studies suggest that a drug-induced 'rescue' of the tanning mechanism may correspondingly rescue at least some aspect of skin cancer protection," Fisher observes. "Such sunless tanning may also dissuade sun-seeking behaviors, which undoubtedly contribute significantly to high skin cancer incidence."

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