Musings on Cosmetics: When Old is New Again

By Gopinathan K. Menon
January 15, 2017

futuristic illustration of landscape and sun

As the world of cosmetics is closely linked with that of fashion, why not follow some of the trends of that world? The "retro" look often cycles, especially in certain niche fashion markets. Recycling old ingredients, however, is not the mindset of anyone leading an R&D effort, much less in the wildest imagination of the marketing gurus.

Yet, the recent trends in the pharmaceutical sector may provide some food for thought. Bringing a new drug to the market is a huge effort in time, money, and other resources, not to mention the regulatory landmines that obstruct the journey. Another discouraging factor is the time span between a new drug launch with full intellectual property protection and the point when a less expensive generic alternative appears in the market place. These factors do not encourage making a huge financial investment in new drug development.

Innovators in the pharmaceutical industry have chosen a different path: finding new uses for an old drug. Using informatics and selectively choosing existing drug molecules (including some which failed in late phases of clinical trials for specific treatments), researchers in the pharmaceutical sector have been focusing on finding new applications.1,2 This ‘repositioning’ approach makes a lot of sense as the drugs have already gone through several layers of safety evaluations and phases of clinical trials, thus saving the new investigations considerable time and money.

The challenges for the personal care industry are not the same, however, there is constant pressure to find and patent novel ingredients by both end product manufacturers and raw ingredient suppliers. Compounding these pressures, especially in the case of skin care active ingredients, are the limited claims we are allowed to make as well as the regulations by governing bodies. These factors are beginning to make discovery and launch of truly breakthrough actives a real stretch goal.

However, most personal care product manufacturers and suppliers are sitting on a gold mine of intellectual property. Many have patented molecules and extracts that are used for a specific target, be it stimulating epidermal turnover, collagen production, hyaluronic acid production, melanin transfer, water transport, protection of telomeres, or regulating epigenetic factors.

Like in the world of fashion, a couple of years into the introduction, these actives start losing their allure, both to our marketers as well as the customer base. Why not emulate the drug industry and test these actives for a new end point, claim, or application? The vast array of pathways and interconnectivity that characterize biology, and our skin in particular, are becoming more visible with advances in informatics, gene array work, and metabolomics. Skin has more than eight types of cells that interact with each other via physical and chemical signals. The sheer number of gene knockouts that affect one parameter (e.g., skin barrier) is astounding. Hence do not believe for a second that one small peptide designed by your biochemist is influencing only that one function for which it is marketed today. Quite possibly, it could do a better job at another function in another cell type or skin appendage with completely unexpected results. One good example is the diabetic drug, Metformin, which has recently been shown to have antiaging properties3-5 as well as effects on pigmentation.6,7 There are plenty of surprises that await the cosmetic chemist who ventures outside of his comfort zone.

1. S. Ekins and A.J. Williams, Finding promiscuous old drugs for new uses, Pharm. Res., 28, 1785-1791 (2011).
2. V.J. Haupt and M. Schroeder, Old friends in new guise: repositioning of known drugs with structural bioinformatics, Brief. Bioinform., 12, 312-326 (2011).
3. V.N. Anisimov, Metformin for aging and cancer prevention, Aging (Albany NY), 2, 760-774 (2010).
4. L.M. Berstein, Metformin in obesity, cancer and aging: addressing controversies, Aging (Albany NY), 4, 320-329 (2012).
5. Y. Ishibashi, T. Matsui, M. Takeuchi, and S. Yamagishi, Metformin inhibits advanced glycation end products (AGEs)-induced renal tubular cell injury by suppressing reactive oxygen species generation via reducing receptor for AGEs (RAGE) expression, Horm. Metab. Res., 44, 891-895 (2012).
6. E.S. Belisle and H.Y. Park, Metformin: a potential drug to treat hyperpigmentation disorders, J. Invest. Dermatol., 134, 2488-2491 (2014).
7. A. Lehraiki, P. Abbe, M. Cerezo, F. Rouaud, C. Regazzetti, B. Chignon-Sicard, T. Passeron, C. Bertolotto, R. Ballotti, and S. Rocchi, Inhibition of melanogenesis by the antidiabetic metformin, J. Invest. Dermatol., 134, 2589-2597 (2014).