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Wednesday, 4 September, 2002, 00:53 GMT 01:53 UK
Implant offers tanning revolution
Before and after shots
Healthy tan: Before and after the drug treatment

Australia has an unenviable record when it comes to the sun.

Up to 80% of new cancers here are skin cancer and half of all Australians will develop some form of skin cancer during their lives.

Sun tanning may be bad for our skin, but it's still an irresistible pastime here.

In three years' time though, getting burned in the sun may be a thing of the past.

In a laboratory at Monash University, half an hour outside Melbourne they're developing Melanotan.

Nicknamed the "Barbie Drug" Melanotan is a naturally occurring hormone that gives users an all over tan after one dose.

The drug triggers the production of melanin - the dark pigment - in the skin.

Not only do you go brown, but you're also protected from the sun's harmful rays when you do go outside.

Tests in animals showed how effective it could be - dogs, who are naturally more receptive than humans to the drug, grew jet black fur when given it.

Yearly dose

But for Biotech Company Epitan and its chief executive Wayne Millen, Melanotan is about much more than just vanity.

"Yes, you will go brown, because you will tan and the reason you will tan is because the drug itself enables the body to develop melanin.

Rats with and without
Animal experiments revealed some striking results
"The reason that's important is that melanin is the body's internal sunscreen. The fact that you go tan is of considerable interest, but in going tan you endow upon yourself a protective mechanism."

It has cost $10 million to develop the drug so far and will cost another $70 million to get through the approvals process.

By the time it reaches the public, Melanotan will be a match-sized implant that sits under your skin.

Each 30-day dose will cost around a hundred dollars and the developers say one dose per year will be enough to get the benefits.

The potential market for Melanotan is huge - every fair-skinned person visiting or living in a hot country is an ideal candidate.

Vanity tablet

Initially the drug would only be available from dermatologists.

But in the long term the company wants to challenge the solarium and skin stain markets, worth over $6bn dollars a year in the United States alone.

But as Patrick Holly, head of the Australian Solarium Association explains, sunbed operators aren't ready to shut up shop quite yet.

Dog before and after
Dogs responded the most radically to the treatment
He said: "You have the choice of lying down for 20 minutes and having a snooze in a relaxed quiet atmosphere as opposed to having an intrusive operation to get medication stuck under your skin. That is a choice people have to make."

What sets melanotan apart from traditional methods of tanning is that the skin doesn't have to burn first.

That's of particular interest here in Australia, where $500m is spent annually on skin-related medical treatment.

But although melanotan will be marketed on health grounds, its popular appeal will be to personal vanity. Simon Jenner took part in the first public trial of Melanotan.

He said: "The hook is the darker skin, I think it looks healthier in most people.

"I'd still go out in the sun, but with Melanotan you get the all over tan, so you get to avoid the embarrassing tan lines and it's a lot quicker, a lot less work."

Melanotan begins phase three trials at the end of next year and should be available from 2005.

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