Slip, slop, slap and swallow: New molecules may prevent skin ageing from sun exposure
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Slip, slop, slap and swallow: New molecules may prevent skin ageing from sun exposure

The molecules work by deactivating the enzymes in our body that degrade our skin upon sun exposure.

Slip-Slop-Slap was a sun protection campaign launched by the Cancer Council of Victoria in Australia in 1981. It outlined the three steps needed to protect from the sun: Slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, and slap on a hat. The campaign featured a seagull mascot named Sid the Seagull, who would sing and dance to the Slip-Slop-Slap phrase. The campaign was so successful in its original run that it is still used today, over 40 years later.

But today, there is a fourth step that Sid the Seagull skipped: Swallow. New molecules are being discovered that can either be swallowed orally or applied topically that protect skin from the sun and stop the ageing process.

The need to keep the skin young and plump has been omnipresent in humans. As far back as 70 BCE, the famous Queen Cleopatra utilized the milk of donkeys to keep her skin youthful and silky smooth by bathing in them daily, as well as incorporating crocodile dung in her facials. Elizabethan women placed raw slices of meat on their faces in order to minimize wrinkles

Today’s women have a much more comprehensive arsenal at their disposal, from UV blocking sunscreen to plastic surgeons and vampire facials, all of which can prevent or reduce the effects of sun damage through supplementing the skin with additional collagen or skin firming procedures.

How the sun damages our skin

Sunlight produces UVA and UVB, both of which causes damage to the skin by penetrating our skin’s natural barriers and degrading the quality of our skin. UVB rays are responsible for causing sunburn, but it’s UVA light that is most harmful as it can distort our very DNA, leading to cancer.

When it comes to how these rays affect our skin’s appearance, it’s important to understand how our body reacts to sun exposure. 

There are enzymes in our body called collagenases, and true to their name, they consume the collagen present in our skin. But this enzyme is only activated by light, which is why people who have excessive sun exposure tend to age prematurely. 

The latest discovery in anti-ageing research

Two Professors, Matt Whiteman of the University of Exeter Medical School and Professor Uraiwan Panich at the Faculty of Medicine Siriraj Hospital, discovered a peculiar molecule that reacts to light by deactivating the enzyme in our body that degrades the quality of our skin. 

The study, published in journal Antioxidants & Redox Signaling, was titled, ‘Mitochondria-targeted hydrogen sulfide delivery molecules protect against UVA-induced photoageing in dermal fibroblasts, and in mouse skin in vivo’ and provides a detailed account of their subsequent experiments. 

Using rats and human skin cells, the professors introduced the two compounds, AP39 and AP123 to both live rats and skin cells in test tubes and made an exciting discovery. While the compounds did not prevent sunburn, it effectively prevented the collagenase enzymes responsible for sun associated damage from activating. 

Professor Uraiwan Panich explains that, “The compounds AP39 and AP123 specifically target the energy generating machinery inside our cells, the mitochondria, and supply them with minute quantities of alternative fuel, hydrogen sulfide, to use when skin cells are stressed by UVA.” 

On top of that, the compounds AP39 and AP123 have also shown promising results in the area of reducing skin inflammation, atopic dermatitis – or what is commonly known as eczema, and even in skin damage after burn injury, which boosts the potential of their discovery. 

Could this molecular discovery eradicate the need for conventional sun protection?

The discovery led by the research team has the potential to regulate the protective mechanisms of mitochondria and the effects it has on skin health, but as it doesn’t protect the skin’s barrier by preventing sunburn, it is quite unlikely that it could replace sunscreen. It might, however, work hand in hand, complementing each other in their respective protective features. 

In his own words, Professor Matt Whiteman, co-author on the paper, states that, “Some skin sun creams and cosmetics contain ingredients thought to protect mitochondria from UV radiation. However, it isn’t clear that these cosmetic skin-applied substances get inside skin cells at all, whereas we found that our molecules penetrate cells and specifically target mitochondria where they are needed.”

The professor also said, “By protecting mitochondria, we also preserve and upregulate the protective mechanisms by which mitochondria control inflammation, protect cells and prevent tissue destruction.”

What does the future for skin care look like?

More research is needed to truly explore the heights of this molecular discovery made by Professor Uraiwan Panich and Professor Matt Whiteman, but it is extremely promising. Sun damage is something that we have been trying to eradicate for centuries, and now that answer might lie in AP39 and AP123. 

In their observations, the professors have noted that the compounds might contribute to further research on reversing damage to the skin done by UV radiation, something which was initially thought of as impossible. 

The important observation noted was that the compounds only regulated energy production, PGC-1α and Nrf2 in skin that was exposed to UVA. This suggests a novel approach to treating skin that has already been damaged by UV radiation, and could potentially reverse, as well as limit, that damage.

“Currently, we have no way of reversing or delaying skin ageing caused by sunlight exposure. Our results are a really exciting step towards that goal, and could one day help reduce age-related skin conditions, as well as be useful in other conditions resulting from the ageing process,” says Professor Matt Whiteman.

The implications of their work could also delve into the medical industry instead of solely being cosmetic. As mentioned earlier, their discovery can also aid in providing relief to burnt patients, or patients with eczema. Other suggested areas include UV light allergies and hereditary skin diseases such as xeroderma pigmentosum, which greatly inhibits the patient’s ability to heal from damage caused by the sun.

The Exeter team is currently testing new molecules in order to develop mitochondrial drugs for clinical use, but there is hope of developing a supplement that can keep skin younger for longer that isn’t influenced by sun exposure.