Source: Sunday Times
Date: 11 April 2004

Superdrug for a dark, lean love machine

bottle of melanotan
Jonathan Leake, Science Editor

BEAUTY and lust may soon come from the same bottle — of pills. A drug that gives users a deep tan, helps them to shed weight and raises their libido is to be tested in Britain.

The drug, Melanotan, has been developed as a protection against sunburn and skin cancer. It delivers a tan without exposure to the sun. But tests have revealed powerful secondary effects, including weight loss and a surging libido.

Some are touting the compound as possibly the most powerful lifestyle drug in existence. Others warn that its introduction would be a medical disaster, giving people a false sense of security about going out in the sun and actually increasing the cases of skin cancer.

Epitan, the maker of Melanotan, said it would first target the drug at the 10%-20% of people with sun allergies. But company documents for investors describe the drug as a potential “blockbuster” and detail plans to sell it more widely, aiming it at sunbed users, people planning holidays in the sun and those who work outdoors.

The firm said: “While more people are aware of the dangers of exposure to UV radiation, the desire to be fashionable outweighs their health concerns.”

Epitan is based in Australia and early trials were conducted on nearly 200 people at the Royal Prince Alfred hospital in Sydney. Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Half its 20m population develops the disease at some point and about 1,000 people die from it each year.

Australian government agencies are studying the trials and could approve Melanotan for prescription this year or next.

There is likely to be similar interest in Britain, which has 8,000 tanning salons. Cases of skin cancer among Britain’s 60m population have surged to an estimated 100,000 a year, with 2,000 deaths annually.

Epitan plans to start trials in Britain and Europe this year.

Melanotan works by stimulating the production of melatonin, the pigment that suffuses the skin after exposure to the sun. The resulting tan can protect the skin against future exposures — but it can be maintained only by regular doses of sun.

Melanotan works in the absence of sunlight. An implant under the skin releases the drug over a period of weeks, conferring a tan that can last months.

Hunter Wessells, an expert in sexual dysfunction at the University of Washington in Seattle, is researching the drug. “It acts on neurones in the brain and spinal cord. It can also cause weight loss,” he said.

Palatin, an American drug company, is in clinical trials of a Melanotan-based drug that can be taken as a nasal spray before sex. Researchers think it unlikely that such sprays would lead to people becoming tanned as they would not be used every day. However, those using the implants to get a tan could experience frequent sexual arousal.

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