An experimental material dubbed “second skin” holds promise for treating debilitating skin diseases and making skin appear more youthful.
“It’s like an invisible suit of elastic armor, but instead of just hiding wrinkles, it makes them go away.”
After more than five years of creating and fine-tuning formulas, a research team including Massachusetts General Hospital dermatologists and MIT scientists recently reported their initial success in the journal Nature Materials. The team’s two-step gel formula reduces saggy under-eye skin as well as the water loss that makes skin dry.
“It’s like an invisible suit of elastic armor,” says R. Rox Anderson, MD, an MGH dermatologist involved. “Instead of just hiding wrinkles, it makes them go away.”
Dermatology Innovator’s Question
Director of Mass General’s Wellman Center for Photomedicine, Dr. Anderson invented many of the laser treatments used in medicine today, including those for removing birthmarks, scars, tattoos and hair. A method using cold to remove fat from targeted areas in the body like the abdomen was also his idea.
As a dermatologist, Dr. Anderson’s expertise includes the study of hair and nails as well as the treatment of skin disorders. Because of Dr. Anderson’s knowledge, MIT’s Robert Langer, PhD, asked him to consult for Living Proof, the hair-product company that Dr. Langer cofounded.
Impressed with Living Proof’s scientists, Dr. Anderson asked them if they could create something that binds to the skin surface and keeps in moisture, is invisible, breathable and has the elasticity of skin.
Restores Youthful Skin
Dr. Anderson says he was inspired by an old beauty secret. “If you paint egg whites on the skin and don’t move, you can watch wrinkles go away as the egg whites dry,” he explains. “But you can’t walk around with egg whites on, plus it cracks when it dries like old dried mud.”
“This is the first potential treatment for eczema that provides a new barrier and fixes what nature got wrong.”
There was good reason to think that the silicone-based polymer chemistry the scientists had been using to coat hair might be the right elixir. Silicones are jack-of-all-trades and by modifying their chemical structures, have been used to make diverse things like sealants, adhesives, “breathable” contact lenses and medical tubing.
The skin functions as a barrier to keep bacteria out and fluids like water in. Aging and exposure to sun impair this function, notes Barbara Gilchrest, MD, a Mass General dermatology consultant also involved in this research. Losing moisture sets the stage for wrinkles and loss of the skin’s elasticity. “The second-skin material slows water loss and restores youthful-looking skin,” she explains.
Second Skin Uses
It became clear to the second skin researchers that the product’s formulation could be further fine-tuned and applied to many different problems. “I’m most excited about the possibility of using it to treat eczema,” Dr. Anderson says. Eczema is caused by genes that impair the skin’s barrier function, leaving the skin dry, scaly and extremely itchy. “This is the first potential treatment for eczema that provides a new barrier and fixes what nature got wrong,” he adds.
It could also be customized to deliver drugs through the skin, for example, to treat psoriasis. Or used to apply sunscreen that lasts all day. It may even be the long-sought-for alternative to needles to drive insulin through the skin of those with diabetes.
Olivo Labs, a company formed specifically to develop and produce second skin, is now conducting further research. No related products are yet ready for sale.
Focusing on Acne
While continuing to consult on the second skin project, Dr. Anderson is deep into solving another complex problem, curing acne. It is a major reason why adolescents commit suicide, he says. In his Mass General lab he is pursuing four entirely different strategies to find the cure. “I don’t know which strategy will be the winner,” he says. “I just want a winner for the kids.”
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