A new ‘super melanin’ skin cream developed by Northwestern University scientists shows the ability to continually heal sun damage and chemical burns.
Synthetic biomimetic melanin cream demonstrated its potential to heal damage that occurs throughout the day when skin is exposed to sunlight or environmental toxins.
It mimics the natural melanin of human skin and can be applied topically to injured skin, where it accelerates wound healing. These effects occur both on the skin itself and systemically in the body.
A study published this week in Nature Regenerative Medicine showed that when applied in a cream, synthetic melanin can protect skin from sun exposure and heal skin damaged by sun damage or chemical burns. The technology works by eliminating free radicals, which are produced by damaged skin, such as a sunburn. If left unchecked, free radical activity damages cells and can ultimately lead to skin aging and skin cancer.
Melanin in humans and animals provides pigmentation to the skin, eyes and hair. The substance protects cells from sun damage with increased pigmentation when the sun is “tanning.” That same pigment in the skin also naturally eliminates free radicals in response to harmful environmental pollution from industrial smokestacks and automobile exhaust.
“People don’t think of their daily lives as a skin lesion,” said co-corresponding author Dr. Kurt Lu, professor and clinic of dermatology at Northwestern University School of Medicine. “If you walk bare-faced in the sun every day, you are constantly bombarded by low-intensity ultraviolet light. “This gets worse during midday rush hours and the summer season.”
Skin, which does not age when protected by clothing, always ages due to aging and external environmental factors, including air pollution.
“All of those attacks on the skin cause free radicals that cause inflammation and break down collagen,” Lu said. “That’s one of the reasons why older skin looks very different than younger skin.”
When scientists created synthetic nanoparticles engineered with melanin, they modified the structure of melanin to have greater free radical scavenging capacity.
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“Synthetic melanin is able to scavenge more radicals per gram compared to human melanin,” said co-author Nathan Gianneschi, professor of chemistry and pharmacology at Northwestern. “It’s like super melanin. It is biocompatible, degradable, non-toxic and transparent when rubbed on the skin. “In our studies, it acts as an effective sponge, removing harmful factors and protecting the skin.”
The sun protection boost remains on the surface and calms the immune system.
Once applied to the skin, melanin sits on the surface and is not absorbed into the lower layers.
“Synthetic melanin stabilizes and sets the skin on a healing path, which we see both in the upper layers and throughout the body,” Gianneschi said.
Scientists, who have been studying melanin for almost 10 years, first tested their synthetic melanin as a sunscreen and were successful.
“Next, we asked whether synthetic melanin, which functions primarily to absorb radicals, could be applied topically after a skin injury and have a healing effect on the skin.” Gianneschi said. “Turns out it works exactly that way.”
“You’re protecting the skin and repairing it simultaneously,” Lu said. It’s an ongoing repair, as shown in the team’s video below…
The cream could also be used for blisters and open sores, while calming the immune system.
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The stratum corneum, the outer layer of mature skin cells, communicates with the epidermis below. It is the superficial layer that receives signals from the body and the outside world. By calming the destructive inflammation on that surface, the body can begin to heal instead of becoming further inflamed.
“This means that stabilizing those upper layers can lead to an active healing process,” Lu said.
In a laboratory, scientists used a chemical to create a blistering reaction in a sample of human skin tissue in a dish. The blisters appeared as a separation of the top layers of skin from each other: very inflamed, like a poison ivy reaction.
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They waited a few hours and then applied their topical melanin cream to the injured skin. In the early days, the cream facilitated an immune response by initially helping the skin’s radical-scavenging enzymes recover and then stopping the production of inflammatory proteins. This started a cascade of responses in which they observed much higher cure rates. This included preserving the healthy layers of skin underneath. In the samples that did not receive the melanin cream treatment, the blisters persisted.
“The treatment has the effect of putting the skin into a cycle of healing and repair, orchestrated by the immune system,” Lu said.
Melanin may protect against toxins, including nerve gas, and the team’s melanin research is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health. They showed that they could dye a military uniform black with melanin and that it would absorb the nerve gas. Furthermore, their observation that melanin protects biological tissue from high-energy radiation shows that it may be an effective treatment for skin burns from radiation exposure.
Melanin also absorbs heavy metals and toxins. “Although it may act this way naturally, we have designed it to optimize the absorption of these toxic molecules with our synthetic version,” Gianneschi said.
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Scientists recently completed a human trial showing that synthetic melanins do not irritate human skin, and the promising work could well provide treatment options for cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy in the future.
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