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Beiersdorf Researches the Skin’s Biological Clock

Can our biological clock be turned back? In skin research, Beiersdorf scientists are getting closer to the vision of eternal youth.

Like clockwork: a molecular clock ticks in every of our cells.

Currently, ageing research is experiencing a real hype. All over the world, clever minds are searching for the formula for the dream of eternal life. The aim is rather to push back natural boundaries in favor of better health. In terms of the largest human organ, Beiersdorf researchers are at the forefront. This year, they have taken decisive steps in the development of a technology that can be used to accurately predict the biological age of the skin.

“With our biological clock, we have a key technology at our disposal. We didn’t fully grasp this at first,” admits Dr. Marc Winnefeld, Head of Applied Skin Research at Beiersdorf. In the meantime, he and his team have immersed themselves deeply in the subject. The researchers are certain that the breakthrough will come sooner or later: “We don’t have a crystal ball, but it’s certainly only a matter of time before we can develop innovative cosmetic products that not only slow down the aging process, but also turn back the skin’s biological clock to improve skin functions in the long term.”  

Reading genetic information

There is complex science behind the biological clock. German-American geneticist Steve Horvath is considered a pioneer in this field. He discovered that in every cell, a molecular clock ticks in sync with our life. In this context, our genetic material is the clockwork. In the course of time, it regularly suffers damage – at first imperceptibly, because initially the body can repair a lot. But gradually, certain chemical modifications cause it to rust, so to speak, and the cells are no longer as functional. This phenomenon, known in technical jargon as methylation, produces a pattern. In order to read and learn from it, Horvath developed an algorithm with which genetic information can be interpreted holistically. The result shows how old a cell actually is and reveals whether it corresponds to a person’s year of birth in the passport, is younger or older.

Deciphering the causes of skin aging with the skin clock technology: Dr. Elke Grönniger and Dr. Marc Winnefeld.

Using knowledge in a targeted way

In principle, Beiersdorf’s biological age clock of the skin follows this approach and, as a technology, is a means to an end, explains Dr. Elke Grönniger: “We can now measure around 850,000 methylation points in the genome. This helps us to understand which blockages are responsible for skin aging. We are targeting precisely these points – with the aim of turning back the age clock of the cells with natural active ingredients in cosmetic products.” The task now is to identify and qualify particularly relevant active ingredients for the skin. The researchers are taking a close look at around 50,000 substances in a screening process – and are clearly enjoying it: “Innovative technologies, algorithms and artificial intelligence enable us to ask previously unsolved questions in a new way. For us in research and development, this is a gift,” Elke says happily. At the same time, this type of ‘applied biology’ provides an impressive example of how innovations emerge at interfaces and of how the entire life science field benefits greatly from AI-based approaches.  

Researching ‘forever young’

With a history of almost 140 years and the associated experience in skin research, groundbreaking innovations are part of Beiersdorf’s DNA. This, unlike all life, already carries eternal youth within it, because the spirit of research is unbroken. “We don’t take it for granted that skin ages,” is how Marc sums up his team’s mentality. In addition to the knowledge about external factors influencing the skin – such as environment, stress, nutrition – as well as extensive know-how in the field of topical applications, the researchers have an instrument in their hands through the biological age clock that not only allows visionary thinking but promotes it. The progress is promising.

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Kathrin Erbar

About the editor: Kathrin Erbar

Kathrin takes us on a journey to the fascinating field of research and development at Beiersdorf. Before exploring Beiersdorf’s DNA, she was doing the communication for HR related topics, such as diversity, leadership or New Work. She also used to be responsible for financial communications at Beiersdorf for several years.