MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Just as summer comes to a close, a lab in Boston reports in the journal Nature that it has created some very tan mice. The mice got that way not by running around in the sun, but by virtue of an experimental skin lotion. Unlike other tanning lotions that dye the skin, this one creates a real tan and it seems to partly protect the mice from skin cancer.
As David Kestenbaum reports, if the cream works on people, it would be the first true tan available in a tube.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Dermatologists know that people don't like to be yelled at for going out in the sun, so there's been a long search for the holy grail - a way to get tan safely.
David Fisher is director of the Melanoma Program at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School. He and his colleagues were studying people with pale skin and red hair who can't get a tan. The work gave the researchers clues to what happens in the skin cells of people who do get tan and they thought a compound called forskolin might activate the same mechanisms. It comes from the root of a plant used in traditional Hindu medicine. They ordered it from a scientific catalogue.
Dr. DAVID FISHER (Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School): We just sort of took the mice and made a very, very simple lotion and just kind of smeared it on their skin.
KESTENBAUM: No obvious ill effects and within days, the mice started to get tan.
Dr. FISHER: I will confess I suspected we might see some darkening, but I was fairly shocked that it was as efficient and as complete as what we actually saw.
KESTENBAUM: After several weeks of applying the lotion every day, the mice got really tan.
Dr. FISHER: And by several weeks, two to three weeks, they would become seriously brown, dark brown and even black to a degree where it could become difficult to distinguish them from mice that had been born with dark skin.
KESTENBAUM: Did the mice look fashionably tan?
Dr. FISHER: You know, they all looked cute. I think even the fair skinned mice are awfully cute. It's hard to say mouse fashion. I don't know.
KESTENBAUM: The tan skin cells of the mice seemed identical to cells tanned by the sun. The cells had actually produced pigment, melanin, and the melanin seemed to protect the cells' DNA. In tests, the tanned mice were likely than pale mice to develop skin cancer when exposed to ultraviolet light.
It's unclear if this compound will work on people. Fisher says he's been tempted to rub the stuff on his skin, but hasn't done it. His lab has tried it out on human skin cells and under the microscope it seems to have some effect. Stephen Stone is president of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Mr. STEPHEN STONE (American Academy of Dermatology): I think this is a very interesting development.
KESTENBAUM: Stone says he would prefer that people just be content with their natural skin color, but that's not the case.
Mr. STONE: Obviously we're dealing, in this situation, with something that's very, very preliminary. But if you could get somebody to put a lotion on their skin and say this is going to be as natural as a sun induced tan without the risk of cancer, assuming that it eventually would be available at a reasonable price, I think people would change their habits.
KESTENBAUM: And maybe stay out of the sun, or at least have a protective tan when they do go out. David Leffell is a dermatologist at Yale. He says dermatologists long ago figured out they weren't going to persuade people to live under a rock.
Dr. DAVID LEFFELL (Yale University): I think there's something about being out in the sun that draws people. Our literature, our music, our culture speaks forever about the attractiveness of being outdoors and the enjoyment of open spaces in the bright sunlight.
KESTENBAUM: Do you go to the beach?
Dr. LEFFELL: Very cautiously.
KESTENBAUM: The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that in the U.S. this year, skin cancer will be diagnosed in over a million people and cause over 10,000 deaths.
David Kestenbaum, NPR News.