A drug that stimulates the body’s tanning response — turning pasty skin caramel for up to two months — has been approved for human trials, but not for tanning.
Although the drug will not be available for cosmetic purposes any time soon, similar compounds are already being widely abused on the pharmaceutical black market. The official product, a man made hormone called afamelanotide, has received U.S. government approval to begin clinical trials.
“It’s a bioabsorbable implant that you just inject into the skin,” said Colin Mackie, director of business development for Clinuvel, the company bringing the drug to the U.S. “It stimulates melanin production.”
Melanin is the body’s natural pigment. It’s responsible for the color of skin and protects humans from harmful solar radiation. The drug will be tested as a treatment for patients who face serious danger from the sun’s rays, like those with rare genetic diseases or who must take immunosuppressants, Mackie said.
But online retailers already offer a similar (but not identical) compound under a more descriptive brand name, Melanotan II, which American and British health officials warn are already being abused.
“Using it could be dangerous to short and long-term health,” British health officials said in November. It has not been tested for safety, quality or effectiveness and we don’t know the potential side effects yet.”
This week two British Medical Journal researchers warned that injecting the compound could change the size and shape of moles, which under normal circumstances can be a precursor to skin cancer.
Melanotan’s plight highlights the difficulty in bringing drugs with large recreational or cosmetic potential to market for decidedly more medical conditions. Before the drugs can make it through safety and efficacy trials, rogue users — almost like pre-release movie filesharers — begin to test the drug on themselves. These high-demand, off-label uses could make regulatory agencies reluctant to approve the pharmaceutical for legitimate uses.
Both Melanotan I and II are synthetic cousins of a naturally occurring hormone that stimulates the production of melanin, the skin’s pigment. But Melanotan II, in particular, appears to have aphrodisiac and erectile function effects as well.
First created and tested back in the late ’80s at the University of Arizona, the synthetic tanning hormone received media attention from around the world. Tom Brokaw, in a 1991 broadcast, said that medical researchers had announced “what could be the answer” to tanning without the skin damage associated with the process. Wired first featured melanotan back in 2002, dubbing it the “Barbie drug” for its purported ability to induce weight loss and increase libido. The label has stuck and is often used in the press
But the drugs were a good idea in search of a disease. Fair-skinned people’s desire to be tan is not a disease, and the tanning behaviors it induces could cause skin damage and cancer. Now, though, Clinuvel has found five, admittedly obscure, medical conditions that the drug could treat.