Could Increasing the Melanin In Your Skin Protect You From Cancer?

Could Increasing the Melanin In Your Skin Protect You From Cancer?

November 9, 2019 11 By Bertrand Dibbert


More people are diagnosed with skin cancer
in the US than any other cancer combined. In fact, melanoma–a highly dangerous type
of skin cancer–is estimated to claim one life every hour. So what if you could lower your risk of skin
cancer….by changing the color of your skin? Ok, this is a big subject, so let’s start
with the science. Everyone has something in their skin called
melanin, a biological pigment that gives us the color of our skin, hair, and eyes. The cells in our epidermis that make this
pigment are called melanocytes, and everyone has the same number of them, but everyone’s
melanocytes make different amounts of melanin, and different kinds. Melanin serves a few very important purposes
besides giving your skin its color. When you’re outside, your skin is being
exposed to the ultraviolet rays of the sun. UV radiation is just that–radiation–and
prolonged exposure can damage the DNA of your skin cells. With enough damage, that DNA can start to
malfunction and the life cycle of your skin cells is disrupted, potentially causing uncontrolled
replication and leading to cancerous growths.Your body’s lookin’ out for you though, and
has a couple of defense mechanisms in place–one of which is…your melanocytes. Inside your melanocytes are little melanin-producing
factories called melanosomes. If the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the
cell, the melanosome is the powerhouse of the melanocyte. And there are two kinds of melanin produced
by these melanosomes–eumelanin, a darker pigment, and pheomelanin, a light-colored
pigment. Eumelanin blocks UV photons from damaging
the skin, so those without a lot of it–people with lighter skin–are at higher risk of sun
damage. So when your skin is exposed to more sun,
your melanocytes are ‘turned on’ to produce more of this UV-blocking melanin to protect
your cells. How much melanin–and which kind–your skin
makes is controlled by your genes. That’s why some people’s skin tone deepens–or
is making more melanin–when exposed to sunlight. Others can’t produce more than a certain
amount of melanin, and so find their skin exposed to more damage…resulting in sunburn! So, more melanin equals darker skin tone and
equals more protection from the sun’s harmful rays. The big takeaway from all this detail is that
those with more melanin, particularly eumelanin, are at decreased risk for skin cancer. And now, researchers have explored how that
level of protection can be artificially induced for those who don’t have it naturally. It turns out that the melanosomes that produce
the two different types of melanin have different pHs, and remember the melanosome is that little
pigment making machine inside your melanocytes. Eumelanin, the dark, highly protective pigment,
is produced by melanosomes that are less acidic than the melanosomes that produce pheomelanin. So researchers have posited–and now shown–that
they can actually change the relative amounts of which kind of melanin your melanosomes
produce. Inhibiting a certain enzyme, called sAC, can
make melanosome pH less acidic and allows those cells to produce more eumelanin–meaning
darker pigmentation and increased protection from skin cancer. We’re still not exactly sure why pH influences
what kind of melanin your melanosomes produce, and this is an area that researchers are hoping
to explore further. It’s important to note that this is different
from regulating melanin production by changing the way your genes are expressed, it’s not
genetic editing. This new research could instead result in
a pharmaceutical drug that induces pigment production– potentially for use by populations
vulnerable to skin cancer, or those with pigmentation conditions that they’d like to treat. This is still in the very early stages though,
being tested in mice and human skin cells in petri dishes. It’s a long way away from practical applications
in humans. Ok, so the science is super cool. But the color of someone’s skin has been something
that defines and often divides humans for millennia. So if it becomes possible for us to change
that color in a very fundamental way for medical purposes, what does that mean for our conception
of things like race? Would its use be ethical? The authors of the study note at the very
top of their research that skin pigmentation has not only health implications, but also
very important psychosocial ones- a reminder that science doesn’t happen in a vacuum
and its results and takeaways go out into an imperfect world…and that’s something
we need to consider. What do you think about this research? Let us know in the comments below, and keep
coming back to Seeker for all things science news. And, fun fact! The scientific word for sunburn is erythema
solare. Thanks for watching.