The Hilarious Story of Melanotan II
Way back in the 1990’s, when Baywatch was the hottest show in America, a researcher at the University of Arizona accidentally invented a new drug that promised to make everyone tanned, thin, and horny. We’re diving into one of the most incredible research discoveries in history.
What is Melanotan II?
If you’re thinking that it’s too good to be true that a single drug could tan your skin to protect you against UV damage, decrease your appetite to help you lose weight, and boost your sex drive, well you’re technically correct. That is because Melanotan II isn’t technically a drug, it’s a drug candidate. Actually, for all intents and purposes it is an abandoned drug candidate because it no longer has a major backer in the pharmaceutical industry.
Melanotan II is a peptide, meaning that it’s made of the same basic building blocks as your whey protein, and it functions similar to a gene in our bodies called melanocyte stimulating hormone. It activates melanocortin receptors, which are found not only in skin cells that produce pigment, but also in a variety of other cell types throughout your body.
As you can probably guess by its name, Melanotan II was the second in a series of peptides that were invented. The original Melanotan proved effective for inducing a tan that can indeed prevent UV damage from the sun, and it has been approved by the FDA under the name Scenesse, but unfortunately it comes as a subcutaneous implant, about the size of a grain of rice that sits just beneath the skin. This stands in contrast to Melanotan II, which can actually be absorbed in the body via nasal spray solution.
The original Melanotan was approved for prevention of phototoxicity in adults with a rare condition called EPP, which effectively makes them allergic to the sun, so it’s actually a life-saving drug for some patients. Unfortunately, the original Melanotan can only make you more tanned, but not horny and thin, so the discovery just wasn’t as profound.
Improving the Original
To improve upon the original Melanotan, researchers took the linear peptide, shortened it, and made it circular, by attaching the two ends together. This clever little trick had the unintended consequence of allowing this new peptide, called Melanotan II, to cross the blood-brain barrier so that it suddenly produced neurological effects.
Basically, it makes the brain stop craving food, and start craving sex. And when researchers published their results, they soon became legendary in the academic community.
Most scientific journal articles are dry and boring, but this one definitely wasn’t. The lead researcher, Dr. Mac Hadley, decided to use himself as the guinea pig, but he screwed up a calculation that led him to accidentally inject himself with way too much Melanotan II, which apparently gave him a massive erection that lasted for 8 hours and wouldn’t subside even with an ice pack stuffed down his pants. Amusingly, it turns out that Mac didn’t keep a camera in his laboratory, so the only evidence for his inconvenient erection is noted in his article as “DATA NOT SHOWN”.
How New Drugs Get Approved
So what happened on the path to drug commercialization? What strategy could a pharmaceutical company use to bring a drug to market that increases sexual arousal?
Well this is where the story of Melanotan II gives some unique insight into how candidate drugs become approved drugs. You might think that drugs are only invented to treat a known disease, but sometimes the opposite happens. A disease is invented in order to get a drug approved.
For instance, back in 2003, the pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Smith Klein wanted to extend their patent for their antidepressant called Paxil, so they lobbied to have shyness turned into a disorder, which they successfully did by launching an education campaign, fostering a medical society dedicated to supporting it, and then petitioning the FDA. Ever since then, if you feel shy about eating in front of other people or using public bathrooms, your doctor can prescribe you Paxil for what is now known as “social anxiety disorder,” courtesy of Glaxo Smith Klein.
Similarly, the FDA didn’t consider “not being horny enough” as a diagnosable condition until some male doctors invented a new syndrome called “hypoactive sexual desire disorder,” perhaps out of frustration that their wives had lost interest in them, at which point it became a problem they needed to solve.
As a side note, hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) was originally called “Candace syndrome”. (Seriously, look it up.) Presumably, some chick named Candace was just never in the mood… and then some physician named a syndrome after her.
The gold standard diagnostic test for low sexual desire in women was invented by this guy, Dr. Raymond Rosen, who was, at the time, a secretly paid consultant for Pfizer, the makers of Viagra. Even more absurdly, the test he developed was a multiple-choice test with no cut off score to differentiate between a positive result versus a negative result, which meant any doctor could arbitrarily diagnose any woman as having HSDD.
Regardless, once this disorder could be “diagnosed”, it could then be “treated”, and a derivative of melanotan II eventually became FDA approved to increase sexual desire, and that drug is now known as PT-141 or Vylessi. At the molecular level, it is over 99% identical to Melanotan II, but functionally speaking, it really isn’t the blockbuster Barbie drug that Melanotan II promised to be.
Melanotan II Research is Ongoing
Since Melanotan peptides are bone fide tanning inducers, rather than just cosmetic tricks like a spray tan, they actually offers protection against UV damage, as demonstrated in numerous successful clinical trials. What’s even more incredible is that Melanotan II is still being actively researched for potential new indications, and there’s over 200 published studies on it to date.
Most recently, in 2019, researchers at UCLA demonstrated that Melanotan II is an effective agent for improving behavioral deficits in a model of autism. So, the incredible journey of Melanotan II isn’t over yet, and who knows, there might even be a few more crazy plot twists in store for us.
In fact, this story recently became even more interesting, because the original researchers are now taking the science in the opposite direction.
Some of the inventors of Melanotan II who are still at the University of Arizona are now developing related peptides and peptide mimetics that actually have the opposite effect with respect to skin darkening, so they are now aiming to reduce pigment levels in skin.
Basically, they are trying to develop a “reverse melanotan”. From a cosmetic standpoint alone, it’s a potential goldmine, because the World Health Organization estimates the global market for skin whitening products to be worth over $8 billion dollars. But that research is still in its infancy, and there are no published candidates yet.
Melanotan II Safety
It is essential to note that the long-term safety of Melanotan II has not been established, and there are medical case reports that link overdoses to systemic toxicity. Moreover, there are also case reports showing a correlation between melanotan use and subsequent changes in moles, including melanoma.
However, case reports cannot determine causality because they are inherently retrospective in nature, and they don’t control for variables like sun-seeking behavior in users, which on its own can cause pathological changes in skin. Lastly, the biggest hurdle that Melanotan II has faced in clinical trials has been nausea, because as many as 40% of participants in some trials have reported feeling queasy, which might account for some of the subsequent weight loss observed.
Please remember that Melanotan II is strictly a research chemical, and it is not FDA approved, nor is it a dietary supplement. All clinical research should be done with oversight from the relevant Institution Review Board, and all preclinical research should be done with oversight from an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, following the guidelines of the Animal Welfare Act.
For more information on the research and development of the melanotan peptides, and for links to some of the research papers we’ve touched on, check out all of our science research content.