Café au sun-block

Skin cancer is a major problem in parts of the Southern Hemisphere. In Australia and New Zealand melanoma rates are between two and five times as high as those found in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. Now there is some interesting news for coffee hounds as caffeine shows promise in reducing damage from UV light.

This is based on research done by researchers at Rutgers University who found that mice fed caffeinated water and then exposed to UVA and UVB light had a greater capacity to kill off their damaged cells that could become cancerous. Human epidemiological studies also show that drinking caffeinated beverages like coffee is associated with decreased rates of skin cancer.

The theory is that caffeine exerts this anticancer effect because it deactivates an enzyme in the skin called ATR (ataxia telangiectasia and Rad3 related kinase). ATR is activated when DNA becomes damaged and allows repair and replication of the cell. Suppression of ATR selectively sensitizes DNA-damaged and malignant cells to death.

To test whether this mechanism could really stop cancer formation the researchers used mice whose ATR genes were deficient and exposed them to UV light. After nineteen weeks of exposure the ATR deficient mice had 69 per cent fewer tumours than did mice with fully functioning ATR genes. The ATR deficient mice also developed four times fewer invasive tumours. However, after 34 weeks all of the mice in the study had developed skin cancers, mainly of the non-melanoma cancer type “squamous cell carcinoma”.

The researchers have said that this suggests that caffeine’s ability to deactivate ATR might work to prevent if applied to directly to the skin. No doubt, there will be caffeine bolstered sun creams available sometime soon. However, it is hardly time however to throw away the broad brimmed hat and wittily emblazoned t-shirt in favour of immersing yourself in a low fat latte prior to going to the beach or lazing by the pool.

For a start, by the end of the current study all of the mice, even those with deactivated ATR, had developed skin tumours. So deactivating ATR will only go so far in protecting you against UV damage. If you have enough UV exposure even drinking eight macchiatos a day and smearing yourself with cappuccino (or even having a friend smear you) will not stop tumours forming in the long run.

Then there is the fact that ATR seems to be related to the formation of squamous cell carcinoma. While squamous cell carcinoma is bad enough and needs attention, it is not the real killer among skin cancers. Melanoma is the big killer, killing four times as many people as non-melanoma skin cancers. So even if caffeine does block skin cancer, it seems to not be blocking the most lethal form.

Caffeinated sun creams might offer some sun damage protection. They might even give you a café au lait tan as caffeine stimulates pigment cells to make more pigment. At this stage however, either as a cream or as a drink, caffeine is only an addition to a good broad brimmed hat, sensible clothing, and SPF30+ sun block when it comes to skin protection.

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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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