New company to develop next-generation sunscreens

07/07/04

A new company, DNAcare Systems, is to be formed at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, based on research by skin cancer expert Dr Mark Birch-Machin and colleagues.

It intends to design a new type of sunscreen which will be specially developed for its ability to protect the skin's genetic material, or DNA.

Accumulation of sun-induced DNA damage in the skin (i.e. sunburnt DNA) is the major cause of skin cancer and skin ageing. Through his research, Dr Birch-Machin has developed a pioneering test for sunburnt DNA which can show DNA damage to skin over time.

Now new financial backing from NStar, the independent early technology funding company based in the North East of England, has enabled the Newcastle University scientists to further this research and bring it into the commercial world.

Currently sunscreens are rated for their ability to prevent sunburn but not for their ability to protect against DNA damage. But research has shown that levels of sunlight not strong enough to cause sunburn can still damage the skin's DNA.

The Newcastle University scientists are in early stage discussions with several major cosmetic companies to create the sunscreen, which will be specifically designed with the DNA protection level in mind.

DNAcare Systems, which will be based in Newcastle University laboratories, will also offer a unique service where companies can have their products rated for their ability to protect the skin from DNA damage.

Skin cancer is Europe's fastest growing form of cancer and kills between 1,500 and 2,000 people in the UK each year. But last week a report by the consumer magazine, Which?, found that many sunscreens on the market do not give the promised level of protection, with some failing to meet industry standards.

Dr Birch-Machin, a reader in molecular dermatology with Newcastle University's School of Clinical and Laboratory Sciences, said:

"It is extremely important to be kind to your DNA and protect it from sun exposure, because it's the only copy you will have. Unlike a car or washing machine, you can't replace it once it has been badly damaged.

"This 'sunburnt DNA' is like a skin cancer timebomb and too much sun exposure also leads to skin ageing, meaning your skin starts to look like an old leather sofa.

"Our company will turn a unique idea, that was born in the laboratory, into a reality.

" We hope to convince the industry to introduce a DNA rating for all sunscreens, as we are convinced this will contribute to reducing the cases of skin cancer."

Dr Andrew Harbottle, who was born and bred in Newcastle and gained his PhD from Newcastle University, will be working as a research scientist with DNAcare Systems.

Dr Harbottle said: "I'm very proud to be part of this venture. As well as getting to apply my scientific research skills to something interesting, I also feel my work is making a difference to people's lives by helping to tackle something as deadly as skin cancer."

DNAcare Systems was granted 51,000 from the Proof of Concept Fund run by NStar.

Dr Richard Exley, who manages the Proof of Concept Fund, said: "Dr Birch-Machin may have come up with a world-class solution to a major human health problem - but even the best ideas need the right financial backing.

"We are delighted to be able to help Dr Birch-Machin develop his unique concept and take it to the next stage."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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