Everyone pale got excited back in 1991 when it was revealed that the University of Arizona had developed a "tanning drug." It made a big enough splash that people yacked about it in elevators and at bus stops. I even remember the moment I first heard about it.
What's been happening in the last ten years? Did Melanotan get tested on people? Is it safe? Will you be able to buy it at the corner drugstore in time for summer?
Melanotan is a synthetic hormone that mimics the action of MSH, or melanocyte-stimulating hormone.
Not yet approved for use by the FDA, Melanotan may be an effective preventative treatment for people at risk for skin cancer. So far, it is effective only when administered by injection, not orally.
In my search for up to date information about Melanotan, I contacted the University of Arizona's web site back in 1999, where I came across the Arizona Cancer Center. I fired off an email and was surprised and pleased to receive a quick and thorough response from Laurie Young, Director of Communication and Outreach for the ACC. Any errors or omissions are my responsibility.
Curiosity about Melanotan increased in 1998 when we all learned that Melanotan II had an unexpected side effect: it caused spontaneous erections in men with erectile dysfunction.
The ACC conducted clinical trials with Melanotan II in 1999 as a treatment for erectile dysfunction. Initial studies showed a positive result and a second study took place in May of '99 through the American Association of Urologists.
What's the difference between Melanotan I and Melanotan II? The ACC filled me in:
"Melanotan I and II are both synthetic hormones of melanocyte stimulating hormone that were created, synthesized and developed at The University of Arizona and the Arizona Cancer Center. Melanotan I is a linear, full length peptide [containing all 13 amino acids]. Melanotan II is a shortened, circular version of the same peptide. Both have sunless tanning capabilities but because Melanotan II had spontaneous erection as a side effect, it is not being further developed as a tanning agent. It is now being evaluated as an erectile dysfunction drug."
The ACC hopes "it can reduce the risk of skin cancer in high-risk individuals by offering them the protective benefit of a tan without the harm of sun exposure – in essence, Melanotan could be a super sun screen to protect fair-skinned, high-risk people from skin cancer. Furthermore, as the ozone layer is depleted, Melanotan may become useful in many more individuals – even those that may tan moderately well."
But is melanin really an effective protection for those at risk for skin cancer? The ACC replied that they demonstrated Melanotan I is effective in promoting skin pigmentation with little or no risk and that its role in actually preventing skin cancer had not yet been determined.
A little known fact about Melanotan is that it produces a darker tan on the face, arms, and legs. I do not know if this would make it objectionable as a cosmetic product [some people might see it as a plus].
My final question to the ACC: Will Melanotan do anything for people with albinism and vitiligo? Unfortunately the answer is no as "these patients do not have skin cells with receptors for melanin. For this reason, the synthetic hormone has no mechanism for action and therefore cannot cause change in pigment."
What does the future look like for Melanotan I and II?
Researchers at the University of Arizona are no longer conducting research with Melanotan I, although research continues for Melanotan II.
A U.S. company, Competitive Technologies, announced in March of last year that they would be developing Melanotan [don't know if it's I or II].
A company in Australia, EpiTan, is raising funds to start production and trials for Melanotan I as a tanning agent to prevent skin cancer. Unfortunately, rumor has it that the Australian equivalent of the FDA will not be accepting the research already done in the U.S., which will greatly delay approval in Australia, as all the tests will have to be repeated.
Recently, EpiTan announced it is working on a time release injection version of Melanotan, moving away from an oral formula. As there are already time release injection hormone drugs on the market [Depo Provera, for instance], this is extremely promising news.
Many questions are still unanswered. For instance, how effective would Melanotan be for redheads, whose melanocytes produce the less effective form of melanin, red-yellow pheomelanin? As one redhead asked me, "Would it just give me more freckles?"