The Sunday Times Published: 01 January 2012. Lois Rogers.
Cosmetics companies are preparing to unveil a new generation of anti-ageing treatments that mimic the actions of the molecules responsible for skin renewal.
The first consumer product based on the emerging science of glycobiology – using sugars found naturally in the body to improve health – will be launched this month by L´Oréal, the world´s largest cosmetics company.
A demonstrably effective cream to reverse wrinkles and the other effects of ageing on the skin is the “holy grail” of the cosmetics industry. The market for anti-ageing cosmetics of all brands is already worth more than £2 billion in Britain alone.
L´Oréal´s anti-ageing cream, registered as Glycanactif, uses synthesised versions of glycans. These are naturally occurring sugars that cluster around the outside of cells and send signals to prompt them to reproduce or modify their function. Glycans are vital to maintaining the body´s systems but they decline in old age, particularly in the skin. Researchers have found that artificially boosting levels of three types of glycan can give skin greater elasticity and thickness and reduce roughness.
Bruno Bernard, L´Oréal´s research director, said: “There is still much more to cell signalling and the ageing process, but all the cosmetics we had before were acting on the surface. Now we are able to create a rejuvenating effect on the deeper layers of the skin.” Seven Nobel prizes have been awarded for studies of glycobiology, whose backers hope it will provide answers to numerous scientific puzzles.
The technology has led to the development of the Hib B vaccine against fatal infant flu by boosting the production of an antibody. It is also expected to lead to the creation of cancer and tuberculosis vaccines.
Peter Seeberger, director of biomolecular systems at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, was the first scientist to copy and manufacture specific types of glycan. For the past two years he has also been working with L´Oréal, which has published several scientific studies showing the skin´s ageing process can be reversed by adding glycans to skin cream.
Seeberger was initially reluctant to be involved in the beauty project. “I´m interested in health, not face paint, but I was very surprised to find out how much real scientific experimentation was going on in a cosmetics company. I could see a value for our work in collaborating with them,” he said.
“The research has shown clear beneficial biochemical changes [to skin quality], both in the laboratory and in human studies,” Seeberger added.
Details of the anti-wrinkle compounds were revealed last autumn in a presentation to the European Society for Dermatological Research.
Other teams working on glycan-based treatments include one at the Seoul National University in South Korea who are believed to be liaising with other cosmetics companies to produce a rival, potentially cheaper product.
Not all scientists are convinced of the claims that glycans can really produce a long-lasting effect by penetrating deep into the skin.
Richard Gallo, professor of dermatology at the University of California in San Diego, carried out much of the original science now being developed by cosmetics firms.
“The study results are surprisingly good, but we don´t know if these molecules are really getting into the skin or how the beneficial effect works. We need more studies,” Gallo said.
“There are a number of companies looking at this area. The optimistic side of me says it does have the potential to provide an effective topical cosmeceutical, but the pessimist in me says it might be just another piece of hype.”
Chris Griffiths, professor of dermatology at Manchester University, pointed out that the effect on skin would be measurable only after years of use, but said cosmetics firms were adopting a much more rigorous scientific approach to the search for anti-ageing products than they had in the past. Dermatologists generally believe that an effective anti-wrinkle agent is within reach.
The increasing efficacy of cosmetics products could bring fresh dilemmas.
If creams are too effective they may be classed as medicines, which require years of trials to prove they are not dangerous.