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    Article was also in The Age

    "Insight - Skin-tanning 'Barbie' drug raises more than just eyebrows.
    10 August 2002
    The Age

    Want to be libidinous and lovely, tanned and terrific? It might soon be just a pill, patch or injection away. Farah Farouque reports.

    Want to be libidinous and lovely, tanned and terrific? It might soon be just a pill, patch or injection away. Farah Farouque reports.

    You are embarrassingly pale. Your paunch is protruding. And last night it was glaringly obvious that your performance needed ... er ... considerable enhancement. OK, you could turn to a sunbed, personal trainer or cybersex line. But what about popping a pill, sticking on a patch or reaching for the hypodermic syringe?

    It is not yet being dispensed at the chemist's, but two versions of a drug being developed for commercial use in Melbourne and New Jersey could unlock enormous cosmetic potential. Melanotan - more alluringly dubbed the "Barbie" drug - holds out the promise of not only being able to induce an all-over tan but also reawaken sexual desire.

    But wait, there's more: in its raw form, melanotan might also work as an appetite suppressant and, as another pleasant side-effect, it could be useful in tackling acne.

    Libidinous and lovely: surely this is a pharmaceutical elixir more revolutionary than that other wonder drug, Viagra?

    "Part of what we do can be considered cosmetic," concedes Dr Wayne Millen, managing director of the Melbourne-based biotech firm EpiTan, which has the world rights to develop melanotan as a tanning agent. But mindful of regulatory hurdles - government licensing bodies frown on party drugs - he is highly circumspect about what his company is about. "It's an extra bullet to fire in the fight against skin cancer," he says.

    Millen's product increases the concentration of melanin, the tanning component, in the skin. The drug is basically a synthetic copy of a naturally occurring tanner - a hormone called Alpha-MSH, which the body produces after sunburn. Its potency in a market place where the tan is terrific (in the United States alone the tanning salon industry is said to be worth US$5 billion a year ($A9.3 billion) is that it can be acquired indoors without any exposure to harmful UV rays at a solarium or from baking in natural sunlight.

    Dr Rob Moodie, of VicHealth, however, is sceptical. He asks: "Is it seriously protective or not? ... A lot of drug-prescribing is also about fashion."

    Meanwhile, New Jersey biotech firm Palatin Technologies is getting in touch with the sexual side of the drug. This exciting prospect was stumbled on a few years ago during human trials at the University of Arizona (researchers at the university are credited with discovering melanotan more than a decade ago).

    While exploring its tanning potential, the researchers found it was stimulating in other ways - one of the male volunteers reported he was developing spontaneous erections.

    This quality in itself could be more far-reaching than Viagra as further tests suggest melanotan 11, as the spin-off is known, acts on the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that triggers arousal (female lab rats high on melanotan reportedly tripled their level of courtship behaviour).

    Viagra, in contrast, is more mechanical as it acts as a vascular stimulant, raising the blood flow to the vital organ.

    Millen believes that while the product being developed at the Palatin laboratories in New Jersey is intended for market as a sexual dysfunction drug, it still contains the tanning properties of the original melanotan formula.

    This hybrid product could face enormous regulatory hurdles, he suggests, when it comes to getting the nod from the picky United States Food and Drug Administration (not to mention the prospect of a mid-winter tan being a dead giveaway to your sexual problems).

    Millen does not foresee such problems in reverse for the tanning drug being developed in Melbourne, however. Can it arouse more than an all-over tan? "Our drug does not display that (sexual) function," he protests.

    As a second round of clinical trials commence, Millen believes, all things being equal, his version of melanotan could be released on to the Australian market by 2005 - another lucrative pharmaceutical product targeted at a largely First World complaint.

    A survey last year by the international aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres raised concerns that many drug companies were concentrating their efforts almost wholly on the affluent world with hardly any new drugs in the works to combat serious diseases of the developing word, such as malaria, sleeping sickness and tuberculosis.

    But Professor Ian Gust, at Melbourne University, says it is not that simple. In the continuum of drugs, he identifies a tanning drug as not really much different to anti-smoking treatments. "It's the next stage on," he says. He equates finding a way to get a safe tan with drinking decaffeinated coffee - it is all about taking the sting out of risky behaviour.

    In his Melbourne lab, Millen also argues melanotan has a serious intent. His company - which floated on the Australian Stock Exchange last year - is salivating about a potential global market for the drug, which he estimates at more than US$1 billion a year.

    Dollars aside, he stays on-message. "There is a very solid, medical reason to develop this product ... We can provide a safeguard for one of the most insidious cancers of all. It just so happens that people like to be tan."

    Farah Farouque is an Age senior writer. "

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