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Scientists hoping to harness melanin’s protective power against skin cancer have created a class of small molecules that could help the skin produce more UV-absorbing pigments. They tested those treatments on human skin samples in the lab, and found they were able to seep in and boost pigment production.

STAT chatted with study author and cancer researcher Dr. David Fisher about the work, published in Cell Reports.


What did you set out to study?

We know a lot about how pigmentation is made, so we looked for a way to find a small molecule chemical to stimulate pigmentation. We wanted to know whether it would be possible to activate real skin pigmentation without using radiation or the sun’s rays, which are damaging and dangerous. We discovered a class of compounds that have the ability to penetrate into the skin and trigger pigmentation.

What do you see as the potential applications for those compounds?

We think it could offer protection. Having dark skin is associated with a really dramatically lower risk of developing skin cancer. Even individuals with just modestly darker skin have a significantly lower skin cancer risk than fair-skinned people who don’t tan, but burn. We don’t anticipate that a huge degree of darkening would be required for the protection. I’m seeing this from a cancer prevention perspective as something that would be used together with sunscreen. I would not see it as a replacement for sunscreen, because sunscreens really do prevent skin cancer.

A photograph of skin treated with a topical drug that induces pigmentation. Nisma Mujahid and David E. Fisher

What’s the next step in the research?

The safety would need to be established and tested. I think probably where it would be tested first would be in individuals who are at the highest risk for developing skin cancer.

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