Exposure to ultraviolet light can contribute to skin cancer and, despite increased education about sunscreens, farmers, construction workers and others who spend long hours exposed to sunlight are among those most at risk. Plus, sunscreens are not alway effective for these high-risk people because they have to be re-applied frequently.

Professor Chandradhar Dwivedi, head of the Pharmaceutical Sciences Department in the College of Pharmacy at South Dakota State University, says their group is working with new types of molecules that will not only boost sunscreen protection but even reverse sun damage. Dwivedi said the work could be commercialized within 10 years.

Here’s a look at SDSU’s research of skin product components:

— Alpha-santalol is the name of a molecule that provides one of the main components of oil of sandalwood. Dwivedi has made alpha-santalol a focus of his research for nearly 15 years.

“This product has been very effective in preventing skin cancer caused by chemicals and by UV radiation,” Dwivedi said. “We have done our work in animal models, now it’s ready to go for testing in humans. Best of all, this molecule has a very nice fragrance, so people will not mind using it. It smells nice, and at the same time, it prevents chemically-caused or UV-induced skin cancer.”

— Another molecule called sarcophine-diol, made from a product called sarcophine coming from coral found in the Red Sea, has been a focus of SDSU research over the past five years.

Sarcophine-diol is effective in micrograms, as compared to milligrams, for other chemo-preventive products. In other words it is effective in a concentration of about one-thousandth of what the scientific literature suggests for other chemo-preventive agents used against chemically and UV-induced skin cancer. SDSU testing has examined two models thus far and is expanding to other models.

Dwivedi said collaboration with SDSU assistant professor Hesham Fahmy is moving that work forward. Fahmy, a chemist, already had one patent for his work with sarcophine-diol at the University of Mississippi when he joined SDSU’s College of Pharmacy in 2004. Dwivedi, Fahmy and SDSU are now pursuing licensing of the patent based on their collaborative research of sarcophine-diol.

Dwivedi said SDSU research will also look at combining products that protect against skin cancer to provide additive/synergistic effects on the protective properties of these molecules. SDSU is also trying to assess whether the products’ potential benefits go beyond protection.

“We hope to include it in sun screen or lotion. Apply it once, and you are set for the day. We are hopeful that it will not only prevent skin cancer but may actually treat skin cancer,” Dwivedi said.

Fahmy explained that skin cancer occurs in two stages: initiation, when normal skin cells turn to precancerous skin cells and remain so for a number of years; and then promotion, a long stage of 10 to 20 years in which precancerous cells can become cancerous. There is a chance to intervene in that second stage so that promotion doesn’t take place and the individual doesn’t contract skin cancer.

He added that cancer is able to proceed by outwitting the body’s mechanism that orders programmed cell death, called apoptosis, for cells that have been genetically damaged.

“After initiation, you have those precancerous cells. But when you use these compounds, they encourage these precancerous cells to commit suicide and regenerate rather than turn cancerous,” Fahmy said. “So in this sense they can undo some of the damage. These compounds reinforce the programmed cell death process.”