A team of researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have developed a new drug capable of tanning the skin without the help of the sun.

The new drug, described in a paper published in the journal Cell Reports, could trigger the same process that darkens skin in the Sun. With the new drug, people could get the same tanning effect, without the risk of being vulnerable to the harmful ultra-violet rays of the sun.

"The activation of the tanning/pigmentation pathway by this new class of small molecules is physiologically identical to UV-induced pigmentation without the DNA-damaging effects of UV," said David E. Fisher, MD, PhD, chief of the Department of Dermatology at MGH and lead investigator of the team, in a press release. "We need to conduct safety studies, which are always essential with potential new treatment compounds, and better understand the actions of these agents. But it's possible they may lead to new ways of protecting against UV-induced skin damage and cancer formation."

To test out the effectiveness of the so-called SIK inhibitors, the researchers tested the new drug to red-haired mice. The researchers observed that the SIK inhibitors darkened the skin of the mouse models. Interestingly, the tan caused by the drug gradually fades away after the treatment was stopped.

In human skin samples, the drug reacted the same way. The SIK inhibitors were able to penetrate the skin, leading to the production of melanin and darkening of the skin. In both the mouse model and human sample, the darkened skin caused by the SIK inhibitors responded like normal tan, but without the damage observed with the sun's UV radiation.

Despite the positive results of their experiments, the researchers noted that further research is necessary to determine possible toxicity of the new drug. SIK inhibitors work by turning on a gene known as MITF. Previous studies showed that mutations in the MITF gene could cause cancer in some cases.