By  on March 13, 2009

About 15 years ago scientists made a stunning discovery: There are genes that control aging. This was followed by another significant finding: These genes, called sirtuins, could be activated to extend life span—a phenomenon that has since been proven in yeast, fruit flies, a tiny worm and mice. What’s more, the animals in these studies didn’t just go on to live longer lives, they went on  to live healthier lives, with less diabetes, less weight gain on high lipid diets and better allover cardiovascular well-being.

While life-span extension hasn’t yet been achieved in humans, it’s being studied at the cellular level with promising results. The implications for a longer, healthier life are clear. Such research has equally as significant consequences for the beauty industry. As the science of aging has progressed, cosmetics firms have benefited with an increasingly deeper understanding of how the skin ages and have been able to harness that information to develop ever more sophisticated products.

“In the last 20 years, there has been essentially a revolution in research on aging,” says Tom Mammone, executive director of research and development for Clinique Worldwide. “The excitement in the field is that we can do something: We can’t stop the aging process, but we can slow it down.”

While most of us regard aging skin in terms of its effects—lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and lack of tone, to name a few—scientists are focused on the shifts that occur at the cellular level. It’s here they’ve identified the seven distinct signs that cause aging, according to Eric Perrier, executive vice president of R&D at LVMH Parfums et Cosmétiques: Cell loss and tissue atrophy, nuclear mutations (that is, changes to the cell nucleus), mitochondria mutations (changes to the parts of the cells that contain genetic material), death resistant cells, tissue stiffening, extracellular aggregates and intracellular aggregates.

To counter these effects virtually every major beauty brand is looking at various aspects of this genetic aging process, conducting state-of-the-art research often in partnership with leading academic institutions, hospitals and biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

At Procter & Gamble, for example, a major focus since the late Nineties has been on gene expression profiling technologies—measuring the activity of thousands of genes simultaneously—to gain a better understanding of skin biology as a whole and, in particular, how skin changes as a result of its environment and the natural aging process.

Where once upon a time a large sample of skin had to be biopsied and sectioned for study (a process that might yield info on one or two genes at a time), now a microscopic bit can deliver information on over 40,000 genes in a single experiment and up to 1.3 million genes a week. The result is faster and more precise information about the skin than ever before.

Among the applications of this information: the detection of cellular signaling pathways, insight into how the skin interacts with its environment, the sun and ingredients applied to it, a deeper understanding of the structures of the skin and the identification of the signatures of healthy skin. According to Jay Tiesman, principal scientist in global biotechnology, who leads the genomics team in providing biotech expertise across P&G, “As the database grows of what a healthy [gene] signature looks like, we can more rapidly create new and better products that will help us in that direction.”

Tiesman’s colleague, Rosemarie Osborne, principal scientist in beauty biology specializing in skin aging at P&G, has pioneered the use of in vitro human skin equivalents at the company. Originally developed to serve as alternatives to animal testing in safety assessments for chemicals and product formulations, Osborne’s human skin models are now being used to measure irritant responses of skin and also to better understand the skin’s response to ingredients commonly used in antiaging and other personal care products. Her team uses these same multilayer skin cultures to assess other skin parameters, such as moisturization, pigmentation and the production of collagen.

These artificial skin cultures help to develop a better understanding of the efficacy of skin care products and ingredients, says Osborne. This, along with the genomics research being performed at the company, is helping its researchers pinpoint what is happening to the skin as it ages. Among their recent findings, the skin’s barrier is profoundly damaged in aged skin. “This primary change causes the skin to use all its energy to repair the barrier instead of repairing deeper damage, like collagen and elastin deterioration,” says Osborne. “Improving the barrier will allow the skin to repair its deeper layers.”

In the past, researchers at the Estée Lauder Cos. had concentrated their antiaging work on protection and repair: Protecting the skin from damage caused by the external environment and repairing damage caused by UV light. Almost five years ago that focus shifted to genetic aging and, specifically, sirtuins, the genes that impact longevity, with Lauder working in conjunction with research groups at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The goal at the time was to activate sirtuins artificially, to induce an increase in longevity without putting the cells in caloric deprivation. Resveratrol, from grapes, was one molecule found to successfully trigger this false alarm response in the cells and lead to an increase in their life span.

In addition to the cells living longer, researchers found those cells also became more resistant to  DNA damage. “Activating the sirtuin increased the duration of each cell cycle, allowing the cells more time to repair,” says Daniel Maes, senior vice president of global research and development at Estée Lauder. “This led us to the belief that it is absolutely necessary not to speed up the cells but to slow them down so they can repair themselves of damage they’re exposed to.”

Going forward, Lauder is continuing to exploit the impact of sirtuins on skin cells and looking at activating others cells so they, too, have better opportunity to repair.

Like its sister brand, scientists at Clinique are focused on continuing research into sirtuin genes (there are seven) and molecules beyond resveratrol that trigger their activation. They, along with the 20 outside research collaborators they partner with, are also looking beyond these established longevity genes. “Sirtuins just scratch the surface,” says Mammone. “There’s a whole other body of longevity genes having to do with insulin and insulinlike pathways in the body that have been shown to influence aging.”

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