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Prof. Des Tobin: Skin - a Jewel in Bradford's Crown - Autumn 2008


Des was very grateful therefore for this opportunity to share with colleagues how Bradford is a prominent participant in the recent explosion of knowledge in the science of skin and hair follicles at both basic and applied research levels. He shares his thoughts and opinions with you.

In a recent conversation with colleagues involved with the University's recent RAE2008 submission preparations in struck, Professor of Cell Biology Des Tobin, that many people were unaware that the University of Bradford is home to Britain's largest group of academic researchers working on skin - our body's largest organ.

Although my own entry into the skin and hair follicle research field may be best shared over a long pint of the black stuff, this cliché-ridden 'superficial' field is now where I have made my academic research career. I continue to be amazed however, by its scope and relevance for science and society in general. So over next couple of pages I would like to share this fervour, together with an account of Bradford's leading position in this area, as well as perhaps get you to pause a moment when you ogle, judge, wash, scratch, slap, shave, spray, paint, tickle, rub, pinch, caress, discriminate, squeeze, inject, comb/brush etc . . . Skin carries our very thoughts and many of our actions too. When a giant of 20th century dermatology was asked to write on the 'true' function of skin, he felt inclined to invert this question asking instead "Is there anything that the skin can't do?"

As social beings we communicate significantly via our physical appearance and so the rich and varied palette of skin/hair colour and type accounts for most of the variation in the phenotype (physical form) of different mammals and between different human subpopulations. Although some of us may see skin as nothing more than an unsophisticated wrapping holding our more important bits in, skin provides an enormous range of other critical functions and potentials (see below).

Some Functions of Skin and Hair follicle:

  • Establishes, controls and transmits contacts with the external world
  • Protects us from deleterious environmental impacts (physical, chemical, microbiological)
  • Maintains our temperature, electrolyte and fluid balance (you have 5 million sweat glands!)
  • Is a bio-factory for synthesis, processing and/or metabolism of a huge range of products (e.g. structural proteins, carbohydrates, lipids and signalling molecules etc.)
  • Is an integral component of our immune, nervous and endocrine systems, with highly active cross-talking networks
  • A physical barrier and sensory organ
  • Social, sexual, age communication (incl. visual stimuli, odorant dispersal etc)
  • Most accessible organ for study of our evolutionary and embryonic origins.
  • Perception of identity, social congruence and health status

Skin and Hair Follicle - tools to understand all of biology:

  • Hair follicles as true mini-organs characterized by autonomous and integrated system biologies that reflect its evolutionary drivers.
  • Similar regulation of hair follicle development before birth and hair growth and cycling in the adult provide unrivalled opportunities to explore basic questions in mammalian biology.
  • Hair follicles are the human body's only cyclical organ system - i.e. hair growth, shedding and regrowth (even if not cosmetically satisfying - a bald man's head keeps its hair follicles, albeit as tiny invisible hairs.
  • Skin and hair follicles are full of adult stem cells with enormous regenerative power, potentially for our entire body.

We are witnessing a renaissance in our understanding of the body's largest organ. A true biologic universe, the skin incorporates all major support systems; vascular, muscles and innervation as well as its role in immune competence, psycho-emotion, ultraviolet radiation sensing, endocrine function etc. Together these are crucial for keeping our bodies stable by means of multiple dynamic equilibrium adjustments, controlled by inter-related regulation mechanisms. The 'new' technologies of Cell Biology, Molecular Biology, Signal Transduction, Proteomics and Genomics etc. have each been applied to skin and have been invaluable in unravelling complexities of skin function. Bradford's skin researchers are engaged in several of these research platforms.

Perhaps the most exciting recent advance in skin sciences has been our greatly improved understanding of skin as a neuro-endocrine system that engages it in a very broad spectrum of stress sensing. Without getting too science-y, it has now been established that skin has an equivalent of the so-called 'hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis' once thought to be the preserve of the brain and central nervous system. While this was heretical when first proposed just a few years ago, when we think about how life forms evolved one can easily appreciate why increasingly sophistication of the brain and other sensory organs (eyes, ears) could have been dependent on the life form perceived/communicated with the world around us via their skin or outer surface.

The most important stressor on planet earth is ultraviolet light from the sun. Therefore we needed to invest much adaptability in our sun-screening pigmentary system (including via its melanin-producing cells called melanocytes). It is no accident that these 'sensing' cells and our neurons share a common origin in the embryo. Indeed, epidermal melanocytes have preserved sensory, regulatory and computing properties that allow them to serve as primitive "neurons of the skin". Bradford University has several of Europe's leading pigment cell researchers (for skin and hair) and hosts a clinic for pigmentary disorders.

But research in skin should not only be an academic pursuit, and particularly so for a University with a strap-line of Making Knowledge Work. At any one time one-in-three of us will experience symptoms of skin disease. Remarkably, skin conditions are among the most common health problems in the West, collectively exceeding the prevalence of obesity, hypertension and cancer. The burden of skin disease extends beyond its financial toll, estimated in the US at $50 billion/year in medical services and lost productivity. The six most economically burdensome skin conditions are skin ulcers and wounds, melanoma, acne, non-melanoma skin cancer, dermatitis (incl. eczema), and hair loss disorders. Researchers at Bradford are actively studying several of these.

An estimated 3,000 varieties of skin disease cause symptoms ranging from simple burning and itch, to severe emotional and social effects, to physical disfigurement or death. Wound care is a hugely important area on the public health agenda, with actual costs for wound management and pressure ulcer treatment estimated at up to £1.5 billion/year in the UK alone. Skin ulcers also pose significant infection risks to patients, and have a substantial impact on quality of life due to pain, prolonged hospitalization, daily dressing changes, and decreased mobility. Researchers at Bradford are actively engaged in this area, including via its spin-out company (AGT Life Sciences) and Plastic Surgery & Burns Unit (established after the devastating fire at Bradford football stadium in 1985).

The casual observed perusing the isles of high-street stores will recognize the increasing interest in using the full power of the scientific approach in the skin and hair personal care sector. This is an area where academics at Bradford lead the field in Europe, both regarding our work on understanding the biology underneath the skin as well as understanding how to deliver agents into the skin. Marketeers are increasingly aware that science appeals to the consumer and this is reflected by the huge growth in 'cosmeceutical' products (though the term is not recognized by the regulators), which claim to marry pharmaceutical power to appearance preparations, as well as nutraceuticals - intended to be ingested to promote healthier looks. The boys are getting in on the act too with Euromonitor reporting a 61% growth in the male grooming market between 2002 and 2007, though the entire cosmetics and personal care market grew by a very credible 49% during the same period. Just to put some figures on all of this - the skin and hair personal care market is predicted to be worth $337 billion by 2012. Quite astounding. You will be familiar with some of the money spinners - vitamins (A, E and C), peptides that boost collagen production (protein which gives skin its elasticity and plumpness and declines with age), retinoids (vitamin A derivatives that speed skin renewal), antioxidants (designed to slow the aging process) etc.

I hope these few words have tweaked some of your antennae, be they on your skin or in your cerebrum. Given the enormous potential, we are establishing of a centre of excellence here in Bradford called the 'Centre for Skin Sciences' which will draw on the hugely relevant clinical and scientific experience from across campus from basic skin/hair researchers, clinical researchers at the Institute of Pigmentary Disorders and the Plastic Surgery and Burns Unit based in Biomedical Sciences, to the transdermal delivery and computational pharmaceutics researchers at the Bradford School of Pharmacy, to bioinformatics scientists at the School of informatics, and on to the skin's psychosocial aspects at the School of Health. This is really an exciting period for Bradford to continue and develop further its lead position in this field. After all, take your skin away and what is left . . . a sticky mess.

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