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SALT LAKE CITY -- A drug not yet approved is turning heads in the tanning world. Nicknamed the "Barbie Drug," it promises to leave you with a tan without the risk of sun damage.
The darker the skin, the more natural protection you have against damaging UV rays. Melanotan, an experimental drug, darkens the skin, inducing a tan without exposure to the sun.
"It's a natural hormone that actually tells our skin cells to make pigment, to make themselves darker," explained Dr. Robert Dorr, of the University of Arizona.
The effects are dramatic: Inject a white-haired dog with melanotan, and he turns jet black. Light mice turn brown, green frogs turn black, and very pale-skinned humans go tan.
An Australian biotech company is developing Melanotan as a drug that might protect against, even prevent, certain serious skin disorders. It's not yet on the market, but consumers everywhere who worship tans are getting their hands on illicit supplies.
Researchers have discovered a thriving Internet community of Melanotan users. Melanotan.org, users discuss their experiences of using the unlicensed, unregulated drug. Prospective users seek advice where they can get Melanotan, or Melanotan 2 -- that's a version of the drug believe to induce erections.
But there remains a big concern: These drugs are potent, and the health risks remain unclear. "You are messing with Mother Nature. You are messing with the endocrine system. So, I do have a bit of a reservation. What else are we going to see down the line?" said Dr. Seth Matarasso, dermatologist with the University of California-San Fransisco.
That's because these drugs are thought to mimic hormones in the body, hormones that also regulate your immune system, inflammatory response and heart.
Clinical trials on Melanotan are underway, but it will probably be years makers seek FDA approval. Even then, it would most likely only be for rare skin conditions.