Scientists open way to a safe suntan

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The Independent Online
A pill that causes skin to tan naturally has come a step nearer with the discovery of the fundamental reason why many faired-skinned people fail to go brown in the sun. Scientists believe the finding opens the way to designing drugs to tan the fairest skin of red-haired people, decreasing their risk of developing skin cancer.

A team of British scientists, led by Professor Tony Thody of Newcastle University, has identified key genetic changes in faired-skinned people that make them unable to produce enough brown-black skin pigmentation, which protects against the sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation.

Professor Thody said that enables researchers to begin the search for "tanning agents" to reverse the process. "It's possible that we may be able to switch on their cells," he said.

"The discovery of genetic changes in fair-skinned people opens the way for a medical test that can identify people who are at high risk of skin cancer.

Newcastle University researchers, working with the Medical Research Council's Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh, compared the genetic material of 30 Britons with different shades of red hair with 30 tanned people with brown or black hair.

Their findings, published tomorrow in Nature Genetics, reveal that about 80 per cent of red-haired people carry genetic mutations that block the action of the hormone in the skin responsible for stimulating the production of the brown-black eumelanin pigment. Skin cancers have increased dramatically since the advent of cheap package holidays to sunny countries.