Source: The Times
Date: 10 January 2009

Beauty genes: the new science
to beat ageing and wrinkles

Yippee! Science claims it's one step closer
to banishing wrinkles. Can it be true?

Vivienne Parry

When a beauty company says that it is using science to beat ageing, I groan and roll my eyes because the beauty business has long used pseudoscience to market its wares. But here, at last, is something that is the genuine article in the fight against wrinkles - “beautyomics”. By using this, scientists have pinpointed which genes are responsible for youthful complexion, and will be able to tailor cosmetic products to your biological make-up.

They may even be able to design products that lend your complexion a fresh, newly exfoliated appearance without the need for exfoliation. The technology could even be used to test conclusively whether a beauty product does what it says on the tin.

In the same way that a whole host of new medicines have appeared based on the molecular discoveries of the 1980s and 1990s, we are seeing the fruits of molecular discovery as applied to skincare. The leading company is L'Oréal, whose brands are among the most familiar on the high street, from top-endLancôme, Shu Uemura and Kiehl's to Garnier, Maybelline and the Body Shop. L'Oréal employs more than 3,000 scientists, over half of them women. Originally founded a century or so ago by a chemist, it has over the years switched from chemical formulations to the new biology. Its scientists publish in respected peer-review journals and work extensively with universities in state-of-the-art laboratories.

Skin is constantly sloughed off

Skin is a bit of an oddity. What we can see, the bit we rate as attractive or youthful, is dead stuff, which is constantly being sloughed off, ending up as the dust in your vacuum cleaner or clinging to your TV screen. It is made of cells that have worked their way up to the surface from the deeper layers of skin, but have died by the time they reach the top. The top layer of skin cells is called the epidermis and the bottom layer known as the dermis. It is in the dermis that the wrinkles form. Pesky lines, such as crow's feet and laughter lines, are caused by a lack of proteins, structures that perform many crucial functions in our bodies. For example, falling levels of the proteins collagen and elastin, mentioned numerous times in adverts for beauty products, can lead to wrinkles.

So here comes the science. All proteins are made on the instructions on genes. They act as blueprints, and proteins are the finished models. Once scientists understood that proteins are crucial to keeping skin looking fresh and youthful, they embarked on a search to find those involved in ageing. As all proteins are made by genes, the scientists were, in effect, trying to find the beauty genes. And now they might have found them. By using cutting-edge technology, usually employed in cancer research, the beauty boffins have devised a way of finding the genes and proteins responsible for skin ageing, and the formation of wrinkles. How will this help to keep our skin looking youthful and wrinkle-free?

The first product to use these discoveries, which will boost youth-associated proteins in the skin, is set to hit the shelves in spring. What these new products will do is to create an optimal environment for the proteins that help to maintain skin elasticity, lending it a more youthful appearance.

How have they made these discoveries?

It all lies in the ability of this technology to make a protein barcode of skin. Each cell in the body carries a set of every gene in your body, 25,000 genes in total. But in the same way that you don't use all the recipes in a cookery book at the same time, a skin cell doesn't need access to every single gene, only the ones that are skin-related. However, until recently, we didn't know what genes were involved in keeping skin healthy. To find these genes, the scientists targeted the crucial process that transforms the genes recipe into proteins. This process is known as transcription.

By monitoring which genes get made into proteins, researchers have been able to identify the genes that are essential for youthful-looking skin.

But the discovery that is going to have the biggest impact on your wrinkles is this. Scientists at L'Oréal have found that there is a different barcode for older skin than younger skin, with 568 genes having their transcription altered with age. Of these, only 184 are thought to be the key genes responsible for a skin's youthful appearance. They have, in effect, found the beauty genes.

Jacques LeClaire, the director of life sciences at L'Oréal Research, says: “It is a means of providing information about skin's function and age, which will accelerate the development of new, more effective products.”

Using these barcodes, they are trying to reverse time. Once they have the barcode from a person in, say, their twenties, and one of someone in their sixties, they can compare the two and know which proteins need to be targeted to transform old-looking skin into a younger looking skin. Further, looking at your individual barcode could reveal which products work best on your skin. Instead of giving women general products based on their chronological age and their skin type, you could give products that were much more specific to an individual's needs and which would, therefore, work better. For instance, the biological age of your skin might differ from your chronological age. Your skin might benefit most from a product range that wasn't based on when you were born, but on your skin age.

Effective technology

Another use might be that if you know what “barcode” is typically caused by exfoliating, products might be developed to mimic that barcode so that the gleaming fresh effects of exfoliation can be obtained without its side-effects of redness or itchy skin.

This technology could also have another crucial use in skincare; one that might change the skincare industry for ever. It could provide evidence for claims on the bottles of skin cream. For example, if a beauty product says that it promotes skin renewal, this technology could be used to test whether this really is the case. It might also be used to show that existing products are not as effective as claimed.

For example, if a beauty product says that it promotes skin renewal, transcription signatures, or barcodes from laboratory models used during product testing should show this to be the case. Make no mistake. There are decades of laboratory research behind this new science of beautyomics. And it's exciting as much for what is revealing as unknown. Tantalisingly, for instance, it has been realised that of the 700 proteins produced in the outer layers of skin, the function of 80 per cent are still a mystery. So there's a lot more research - and a lot of genuinely effective products still to come.

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