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Scientists: heroes or villains?

What we can learn from the Barbie Drug

Philip Strange 3 May 2009

Dark intentions: tanning drugs can have side effects

Scientists have a duty to think about the implications of the work they carry out

It was National Science and Engineering Week recently and my daughter’s school held a series of events to mark this. As part of the week, her class were treated to a play about “pushes and pulls” meant to help them think about forces. The central character in this play was the evil genius, Dr Blowoff. I was pleased to see science having a high profile but I thought it was a pity to see this old stereotype of the scientist trotted out again. The evil genius is indeed one of the extreme ways in which scientists are portrayed in the media and literature; he is the cold-hearted monster intent on inflicting his ideas on society. Scientists can also be portrayed favourably as altruistic seekers after truth bent on improving people’s lives and, although this image sounds better, it is probably equally flawed.

These stereotypes have come to the fore recently in a story that has featured in the media. It seems that synthetic hormones developed by scientists have become available and are being injected by some people to give themselves a tan. The substance in question is called melanotan, which is a synthetic analogue of the natural hormone a-melanocyte stimulating hormone (a-MSH). a-MSH is involved in the response to sunlight, stimulating cells called melanocytes to make melanin, the protective tanning pigment in the skin. The synthetic derivatives (melanotan I and II) were made at the University of Arizona in the 1980’s and found to mimic a-MSH but more potently.

Using these synthetic hormones might then darken the skin and give people the tan they want without the dangers of sunlight. Building up a tan like this might also provide a melanin protection against sun damage. Melanotan I has been shown, in limited clinical trials, to give a tan in volunteers with tannable skin types by increasing melanin levels in their skin. Melanotan II will also produce a tan but it has additional effects on libido and sexual arousal, which can be a welcome effect or an embarrassment. Some have dubbed these substances the “Barbie drug”, presumably because melanotan II will give you a tan, reduce your weight and increase your libido.

Melanotan I is available via the Internet (for research purposes only!) or “under the counter” at tanning parlours, and is being injected to produce a tan in those who use it. There are reports of so-called tanorexics injecting the substance and experiencing side effects such as nausea but ending up with a good tan. Tanning is also important for body builders. Some body builders have used melanotan II but have apparently been embarrassed by the unanticipated side effects.

This is all very well and we can snigger about the users and the side effects, but these people are using substances that are not properly controlled and certainly have not been approved for injection. The FDA and the MHRA have both issued warnings against using melanotan, as it is unlicensed, untested and the preparations available are of variable quality. There is also a concern that people may be careless with sun exposure after using this artificial tanning method. In a particularly worrying development, there have been reports of rapid changes in the size and colour of moles in people using these substances and this could be associated with melanoma.

The story of melanotan is a very odd one and in my view, likely to end in tears. That will be very bad for the people using melanotan but it will also be bad for the image of science. Why is this unorthodox use occurring and what can we learn from it?

To answer this question, it is important to understand what drives people to inject an untested material and suffer unpleasant side effects, all to look tanned. Ironically, possession of a tan used to be very unfashionable before the 20th century: it meant you might have been working in the open air and were by implication poor and of a lower class. In the 20th century, tanning became fashionable because it implied wealth and the ability to travel. There is now some recognition that tanning is dangerous and excessive exposure to sunlight has led to the increase in skin cancer in fair-skinned people. Nevertheless, tanning parlours are widespread and advertisements for tanning cosmetics appear regularly in the press. This suggests to me that there is also a body image issue here. Somehow a tan is linked with health, wealth and celebrity and this drives people to try risky methods such as melanotan injection.

Where do the scientists fit in to this story? Why did they develop these materials? Did they consider the issues? It seems likely that the original developers of the materials were not unaware of the potential recreational uses, seeing as how they chose the provocative name ‘melanotan’ for their synthetic hormones.

I believe scientists have a duty to think about the implications of the work they carry out, and perhaps it might have been better not to develop these materials. I am reminded of the discovery of the drug Ro15-4513 by Hoffmann La Roche in the 1980’s, a compound that could reverse the effects of alcohol in intoxicated rats and thought to have potential as an attractive pro-sobriety agent in humans. Despite these interesting effects, the company decided against marketing the drug as they felt it might encourage alcohol abuse.

Perhaps another aspect of this story is how it reflects people’s view of science. I would guess that the people using melanotan do not a have a very clear view of the dangers. This reflects the generally poor knowledge of science in society. To the users, scientists are probably heroes for developing the materials. The users must, however, take some responsibility for themselves and the risks they are taking. They will be the first to blame scientists if it all goes wrong, and scientists will then be cast in their usual role: as villains.