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Research reveals the secret to boosting our skin’s natural defences

New research by Unilever, IBM Research and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) reveals that vitamin B3 could hold the key to unlocking a new generation of hygiene products that work by boosting the body’s natural defences.

We come into contact with potentially harmful germs every day. However, our bodies are able to repel the vast majority thanks to tiny but mighty proteins called antimicrobial peptides. These AMPs, as they are known by scientists, are created by the skin and form its first line of defence by destroying the outer layer of the invading virus and bacteria cells as they come into contact with the skin.

Now, a new collaboration between a team of microbiologists and skin scientists at Unilever, and quantum computing and Artificial Intelligence experts at IBM Research and the Science Technology Facilities Council Hartree Centre, has shown how a common skincare ingredient can boost these natural defences.

Niacinamide, also known as vitamin B3, can boost both the numbers and effectiveness of the skin’s natural AMPs. This discovery was first made by Unilever scientists in India, but the team were keen to find out more.

Ramping up the AMPs

“We wanted to understand if the cooperative effect between vitamin B3 and natural antimicrobial peptides could help us to develop products that would complement the skin’s natural defences against harmful bacteria,” says Dr Michael Hoptroff from Unilever Research and Development. “Our experiments, combined with the STFC and IBM computational simulation work, have shown that this is indeed a possibility.”

Many skin conditions like eczema, body odour and dandruff are exacerbated when the fine balance of micro-organisms living on the skin, known as the microbiome, is disturbed.Treating these conditions requires re-establishing balance in the microbiome and creating an environment where AMPs can thrive.

Several years ago, Unilever scientists in India discovered that vitamin B3 could trigger an increase in the amount of skin-protecting AMPs produced naturally by the skin. This clearly offered a performance advantage, and it was subsequently added to products such as hand sanitisers to improve their effectiveness.

Laboratory studies further revealed that the vitamin also ramped up the potency of the AMPs, making them significantly more effective. Now, thanks to Unilever and computational scientists from the STFC Hartree Centre and IBM Research, we know why.

The power of scientific partnership

Using high-performance computing technology at the Hartree Centre and the data from the studies by Unilever scientists, IBM and STFC created computational models of bacterial and human cell membranes, as well as vitamin B3 and AMPs.

Simulations were then run using these models to see how the vitamin molecules interacted with the AMPs and the bacterial membrane; and why vitamin B3 boosted their activity.

These simulations provide a wealth of detailed insights that could become the foundation for developing new skin hygiene products and cosmetics using niacinamide – and possibly other peptide-boosting materials, while complying with applicable regulations.

“AI and computer learning could predict even more effective boosters that we are not aware of and that might need to be created by synthetic chemists,” says Dr Amitabha Majumdar, a Senior Research Scientist at Unilever.

“That is the incredible power of machine learning and AI: it can see connections in the data that we cannot and deliver results that we were looking for.”

References:

  1. Losasso, V., Agarwal, K., Waskar, M., et al. Small molecules enhance the potency of natural antimicrobial peptides. Biophysical Journal. (2022).
  2. Mathapathi MS, Mallemalla P, Vora S, Iyer V, Tiwari JK, Chakrabortty A, Majumdar A*. Niacinamide leave-on formulation provides long-lasting protection against bacteria in vivo. Exp Dermatol. 2017 Sep;26(9):827-829.