Innovation in Skin Microbiome Diversity

The theme for World Microbiome Day 2020 is ‘Diversity’ – celebrating diversity of microbes, microbiome habitats, diets to feed and fuel microbiomes and the diversity among microbiome researchers. In this blog, our Senior Innovation Consultant, Dr Katerina Steventon assesses innovation in skin microbiome diversity.

Working as a Senior Innovation Consultant for NBIC and with a focus on the personal care industries, I am interested in the ‘microbiome signatures’ and species diversity of the skin and oral microbiome.  In order to innovate, gaining a detailed understanding of these microbial environments in health and disease-states is the first essential step for the industry. The next step is to develop a portfolio of innovative products to diagnose, detect and manage the microbiome. By working with the microbiomes rather than eradicating the commensal species then perhaps in the future we may be able to “engineer” into these microbiomes better characteristics to address disease, dysbiotic shifts, or preventatively balance the effect of the products in a ‘microbiome-friendly’ manner.

Innovation in Skin Microbiome Diversity

We still are at the beginning in terms of understanding the fundamental science of skin microbiome. In general, skin microbial diversity has been associated with health. But new insights can shift the focus of skincare target strategies. For example, recent research looking at the skin has established that whilst the healthy epidermal microbial ‘fingerprint’ is diverse and unique for each individual, the deeper dermal microbiome is universal (with less diversity). Because the dermal microbiome is in direct contact with our immune system and invoking a ‘host response’, future research should focus there[i].

However, some large companies take the line that in healthy individuals there is no evidence or data to warrant a need for a meaningful intervention in the skin microbiome. They recognise the temporal stability of skin microbial populations, as the skin microbiome remains unchanged in the long-term even though it is subjected to daily attrition through washing, changes in temperature, humidity, pollution, exposure to a range of antimicrobials and preservatives and a range of stressful psychological states. This opens up the question of the difference between the transient microflora (transferred from external contact) and residential skin microflora ( permanent stable population)  and, the perhaps gives a rationale to the approach of recruiting the microbiome from deeper epidermal layers, which for example, the ingredient supplier CLR are taking with their ProRenew Complex CLR™ (INCI: Lactococcus Ferment Lysate) post-biotic ingredient claiming to improve and accelerate the epidermal renewal processes and skin barrier function, to regain and maintain its healthy balance quicker and more effectively.[ii] As Harald Van Der Hoeven from CLR says,

Skin health reflects lifestyle, and the personal care industry have a strong presence not only in topical skincare but also in over the healthcare and oral supplement categories. Research linked the skin microbiome with the American Gut Project reporting that skin (as well as the gut but not oral) microbiome composition changes in obese and overweight people. There is reduced microbial diversity and the researchers propose skin microbial diversity to be a biomarker for manifestations of the state of the body beyond conditions with skin aetiology[iii].

Microbiome diversity is likely to be the target of the skincare interventions; the detail of ‘what and how’ has yet to be determined. The true drivers of innovation are excellence in science and its fast translation (through collaborative R&D) to the industry. At present, the skin microbiome expertise lies within academia and large multinational corporations, either ingredient or finished product manufacturers, only a few SMEs are present.

When looking at the main players, technology led start-ups and spin-outs from universities are more likely to enter the market, the barriers being their research capability and technology platform. Depending on the size of the company, only companies ‘under the radar’ can temporarily advertise ‘puffery’ claims which are vaguely substantiated, and not to the scrutiny of the regulatory and advertising agencies. Large multinationals have brand values, trust and reputation to upkeep with consumers and the media. They have to invest in R&D, develop technology strategy, roadmaps and forecasting working in a structured way of open innovation.

The advantages of collaboration between industry and universities are widely recognised, allowing for early insights i.e. the exchange of tacit scientific knowledge and access to unpublished codified knowledge from the most recent research findings. The European Union are doing that and so are the government innovation agencies in the UK.  Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation said,

“We need open innovation to capitalise on the results of European research and innovation. This means creating the right ecosystems, increasing investment, and bringing more companies and regions into the knowledge economy”.

The starting point for an Innovation Knowledge Centre (IKC) like NBIC is a technology area, in this case biofilms, where UK PLC decides it has the ‘right to win’; that is, the country has sufficient academic, scientific and industrial critical mass to make an impact and there is growth potential in that sector. The growth potential in the personal care sector depends on terminology. In skincare, the ‘microbiome terminology’ prevails as ‘biofilm’ large microbial clusters are likely to point to intertriginous niches with mucous membrane surface e.g. the axilla or genitals, or diseases of the follicle (acne, dandruff) and therefore deodorant, feminine health and over-the-counter R&D categories.

NBIC is in essence a translational hub, bringing together the knowledge and expertise that is out there in academia and the industry and provide seed funding to make these relationships happen. Universities may see themselves as open innovation hubs but more aligned to large companies than SMEs. Small companies pursue open innovation for tactical and market related reasons, e.g. meeting immediate customer needs and gaining competitive advantage. Some government initiatives support SMEs but not necessarily involving direct, explicit transfer of academic research and knowledge (Enterprise European Network; Business Link, Growth Accelerator programmes).[iv]

NBIC’s goal is to create a consortium of leading academics in a range of sectors including personal care and oral care that are ‘larger than the sum of their parts’. Exposed to academic excellence, we refine our innovative thinking in applied R&D to better understand the unmet, and often unarticulated, consumer needs in the personal care sectors; we describe these as ‘problem statements’ to attract solutions that fit within the cosmetic regulatory pathways. Part of our vision is that our credibility and expertise will attract large multinational companies to invest more in biofilm research in the UK. We take time to listen to and interpret the rapidly evolving momentum in the industry and the wave of consumer opinion, to encourage the personal care industry to push forward in this space. Quality of life addressed by these industries is an invaluable asset in human existence, yet still economically undervalued. [v]

What’s next?

As the fundamental research into skin microbiome has yet a long way to go, the industry has ‘a watching brief’. The eighth Microbiome R&D and Business Collaboration Forum (USA) will be held in November 2020, RB sponsoring follows in footsteps of Estee Lauder last year. It is the face to face meetings where relationships happen to explore new business and commercialisation strategies and translate findings into viable products through collaborative partnerships and funding opportunities.[vi].


[i] Universal Dermal Microbiome in Human Skin 

[ii] New data on the skin microbiota

[iii] Beyond the gut: Skin microbiome compositional changes are associated with BMI

[iv] How inbound open innovation helps SMEs learn and improve: knowledge transfer from university to industry through direct coaching 

[v] Search Results Web results Working with the best people is more important than employing them 

[vi] Eighth Microbiome R&D and Business Collaboration Forum: USA 

Dr Katerina Steventon, NBIC Senior Innovation Consultant

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