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Study: Fake Tans May Block Cancer

Red-haired mice shielded from melanoma; will it work for strawberry blondes?

By Christina G. Vangelakos, Crimson Staff Writer

The coming of winter doesn’t mean the end of tanning season—at least, not if you’re a mouse.

The Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has provided red-haired rodents with a way to brown. And the discovery could have major implications for the prevention of melanoma—a disease that is estimated to strike one in 75 Americans at some point in their lifetime.

In a study published yesterday by the journal Nature, David E. Fisher, director of the Melanoma Program at Dana-Farber and a professor in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston, has found that induced tans protect at-risk mice—and, potentially, humans—from skin cancer.

For the study, Fisher generated red-haired mice, which, like fair-skinned humans, were unable to tan. After applying a topical cream, which triggered the tanning machinery in the mice skin cells, Fisher was able to give mice a tan without exposing them to harmful UV light.

“We learned the normal pathway in easily tanning individuals and identified the block that occurs in red-heads and fair-skinned individuals. With that information we have identified a drug which rescues the pathway in mice,” Fisher said in a phone interview.

The study also showed that tans acquired through this process protect against the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma.

“For humans, sunburn can already be prevented by sunscreen,” Fisher said. But, he added, “it really is not clear if traditional sunscreen can prevent melanoma.”

Although the study has made huge strides, it still has a long way to go.

“We would still need to figure out an effective way to apply our findings to humans,” said former Harvard Medical School instructor John A. D’Orazio, who assisted Fisher’s study for the past three-and-a-half years. “We’re also looking at safety issues and possible side-effects,” added D’Orazio, now a pediatrics professor at the University of Kentucky.

Findings from this study may also prevent skin damage by providing a tanning alternative for sunflowers like Devon L. MacLaughlin ’09, who spent her summer on the beach.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 62,190 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in the United States this year, and 7,910 people will die of the disease. “But,” MacLaughlin said, “I go tanning anyway because I look better tan.”

“If scientists found a way to prevent burning and make me tan without UV rays, I would probably use that in the winter when I’m stuck in Boston where the sun never shines,” MacLaughlin said.

MacLaughlin’s wish may come true. When asked if he thought it possible to one day prevent humans from burning in the sun, D’Orazio replied, “Yes. Absolutely.”

—Staff writer Christina G. Vangelakos can be reached at

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