British scientists have uncovered a secret from the sea that could lead to a sunscreen pill.
The King’s College London team has studied the unique way coral protects itself from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays and they believe this discovery could be used to create the first ever sunscreen tablet that protects both skin and eyes.
According to Dr. Paul Long, head of the team, researchers were already aware that coral and some algae had the capabilities to produce their own sunscreens – the difference is now they know how it’s done.
"What we have found is that the algae living within the coral makes a compound that we think is transported to the coral, which then modifies it into a sunscreen for the benefit of both the coral and the algae,” said Long in a news release on the King’s College website.
He noted the UV protection is passed up the food chain, because the fish that feed off the coral also benefit from its sunscreen.
"This led us to believe that if we can determine how this compound is created and passed on, we could biosynthetically develop it in the laboratory to create a sunscreen for human use, perhaps in the form of a tablet, which would work in a similar way,” stated Long.
The team is extremely close to producing the genetic code the coral uses to produce this compound and plans to test it within the next two years, if everything goes accordingly, he said.
However, before creating the pill version the King’s College London team will test a lotion containing these components.
Dr. Long said, “We couldn’t and wouldn’t want to use the coral itself as it is an endangered species.”
According to Long, once the compounds are recreated the team can begin testing the lotion on discarded skin from cosmetic surgeries.
Long admits there is a need for better sunscreens but said researchers wouldn’t know how much protection against the sun’s rays the algae sunscreen would provide until tested.
Dr. Long predicted it would take at least another five years to develop the sunscreen tablet.
As part of a three-year project funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the King’s team collected coral samples to be studied from the Great Barrier Reef this month.