Photo Credit: beautyinthebag.com
Thomas has been involved in both helping to create and run several biotech startups and has worked closely with the medical and marketing teams for industry leaders such as Boehringer Ingelheim and Bayer. He is also the acting VP of Clinical and Medical Affairs for Bellus Medical and travels the country lecturing to medical professionals about skincare and aesthetics in dermatology. His findings have been both presented to the scientific community and published in noteworthy scientific journals, such as the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, Cell Transplantation, the Journal of Biological Chemistry and the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
Beauty in the Bag interviewed Thomas to learn more about his cutting edge skin care technology and how probiotics affect the skin.
1. What inspired you to create your cutting edge skincare technology and how did it all come together?
My inspiration was an accumulation of a few life experiences over about 7 years. Initially, it was my training as a geneticist/tissue engineer where I was introduced to the idea of using cell-based therapies to treat disease, it has since always interested me. The second part was when I was hospitalized after getting a minor infection that was misdiagnosed and mistreated with the wrong antibiotics. This led to me having several MRSA (resistant staph) infections, a Clostridium difficile infection (a gut infection that can lead to sepsis and death) and Pneumonia…all at the same time. I quickly learned to respect the microbiome and that overuse/misuse of antibiotics can have potentially devastating results. And my last inspiration, the one that resulted in me finally forming Xycrobe Therapeutics (pronounced ˈzīˌkrōb), was when I left academia and entered the dermatology start-up world. I saw so many topical “technologies” that were pure marketing and fluff, claiming all sorts of unrealistic “bells and whistles.” As a scientist, I knew that the science behind many of these products was shaky at best, yet, they sold to physicians who would in-turn sell them to their patients. So, I started to think of ways to deliver topical therapies to the skin in an effective manner, that could actually be backed up by science. That’s when I had the idea to leverage the ubiquitous nature of skin bacteria for the delivery of therapeutics…cell therapy, but using our microbiome cells rather than human cells! The skin is covered in bacteria (I know we don’t like to think this, but it is a reality), so why not use that adjunct layer of cells to our benefit? And that is what was the beginning of Xycrobe. We initially began development on microbes designed to deliver medicine for treatment of inflammatory skin disease (like acne, psoriasis and dermatitis) and we even signed an agreement in August of 2016 with Johnson & Johnson Innovations to pursue this. However, along the way we noted that even the first step of the development, a specific species of skin bacteria that we designed not to grow unless activated, was showing a lot of potential as a treatment. We observed that the strain produced a significant amount of antioxidants, was anti-inflammatory to human tissues and had specific anti-microbial activity against Staph aureus (a skin pathogen). So, we decided to work tandemly on both the “cosmetic” strains of our Xycrobes as well as our therapeutics strains. We are hoping to launch our “cosmetic” strains in early 2018.
2. Can you explain the cold hard facts about probiotics, and how they are able to help certain skin conditions?
Traditionally, a probiotic is a microorganism (usually a bacteria) that is introduced into the body for the purpose of gleaning benefit from some of the attributes that organism has. The benefits usually stem from 1) The bacteria taking up space and thereby preventing “bad” bacteria from taking up residence, 2)the bacteria metabolites (what they produce) acting in some fashion that is beneficial to the host, or 3) the bacteria having some sort of metabolic activity that is synergistic with the host (e.g., bacteria can digest plant cell walls (cellulose), where human cells cannot). Most of what has been studied and understood about how probiotics can assist with the overall health and balance of the microbiome has been in the GI tract. However, more and more research and development is being done currently to also look at the skin microbiome and how the introduction of certain substances and organisms may impact the skin microbiome and skin health. Xycrobe is one of the pioneers in this effort.
As we are learning more about the skin microbiome and how it is affected by our human genetics, environment and the topicals we place on our skin; many skincare companies are looking to how probiotics can be implemented into their products. Interestingly, most of the companies that have attempted to do this early on use the label “probiotic” but do not actually contain any live microorganisms. In fact, most of the brands that boast “probiotic” actually have either pre-biotics (substances that modulate the growth of “good” bacteria), lysates of gut probiotics (basically they pop open the bacteria and use the contents), or actual pieces of dead probiotics. So what we are currently seeing on the market are actually not probiotic skin care, but potential skin microbiome-modulating efforts. One formulation strategy that is currently being sold contains Lipopolysaccharides (LPS), dead pieces of certain bacterial strains, claiming that the live organism is not needed to illicit benefit. However, LPS is well known to induce strong immune responses in human cells, which means inflammation. While some aesthetic therapies try to harness inflammation to get a cosmetic result, I don’t think most dermatology clinicians would recommend putting substances on your face daily that cause inflammation since chronic inflammation is linked to aging and cancer metastasis. Additionally, the strains of bacteria that are being used in the aforementioned brands tend to be exclusively bacteria that are native to the gut (such as L. acidophilus), not the skin. Yet, the bacteria that thrive in the gut are not the same as those that thrive on the skin, and the makeup of the types of bacteria that thrive in different areas of the body is very different from place to place, even between areas on the skin. For example, the types of bacteria that tend to grow on your forehead are different than those that grow on your forearm. The environment of the area of the body and what nutrition/substances are available (i.e., body oils, sweat, etc) determine what type of bacteria will grow and thrive. Therefore, use of gut-native bacteria on the skin most likely will not allow for that bacteria to populate the skin, it may not even be able to live or function at all depending on the type of strain. This is not to say that the above strategies cannot possibly have some merit, but such strategies should be evaluated specifically for skin use and not simply on how they affect human skin tissue, but also effects on the native skin microbiome and thereby the potential impact on the overall skin health.
At Xycrobe, we are producing products that contain native-skin bacteria and we have/are evaluating their impact on skin tissues, the immune system, and the native microbiome cells alike. We aim to make products containing true skin probiotics that also confer a therapeutic benefit by conditioning the overall skin environment for health and balance. Our first product will be a strain of native-skin bacteria that has been engineered not to grow unless activated. This strain’s main food source is the sebum that skin makes, and so it thrives in the pores and hair follicles. Once it starts eating the sebum plugs in the pores, it starts to secrete powerful antioxidants (just as strong as Vitamin C or Vitamin E) as well as slightly acidic substances that lower the pH of the skin. This process yields several benefits: 1)The antioxidants fight free-radicals to assist with prevention of skin-cell damage/aging 2) the same antioxidants also prevent oxidation of the sebum in pores, reducing/eliminating appearance of blackheads 3) the bacteria digest away the sebum plugs, reducing the bulk in the pore which allows the pores to shrink, 4) the lower pH is conducive to growth of “good” bacteria but not pathogens like MRSA, so the amount of Staph bacteria on the face is reduced and 5) the bacteria is anti-inflammatory, so it can reduce the puffiness around pores and smooth overall skin texture. We have observed all these both in the lab and on live human skin.
3. What do you think is the future of skin care in the next 5-10 years?
Great question. I think one of the biggest changes will be how skincare products affect the native skin microbiome. Currently, almost every topical out there contains some sort of preservative for ease of manufacturing and to maintain longer shelf-life. However, preservatives have a low-level anti-microbial effect to prevent microbe growth. So, every time you slather your favorite skincare product on your skin you are also killing bacteria. We used to think that was a good thing. Now we know more about the skin microbiome and how it reacts to use of anti-microbial substances. The “scorched-earth” approach to skincare of the past allows for indiscriminate killing of bacteria on the skin, but what we didn’t know back then was that the “bad” bacteria tends to be more robust than the “good” bacteria. So, every time we use anti-microbial products, the balance of our microbiome can shift slightly to what we call dysbiosis, or imbalance of the skin microflora. This phenomenon is why a wealthier nation, like the USA, can have a disproportionately higher incidence of inflammatory skin disease. This “scorched-earth” approach will need to change, and we will need to remove the bulk of anti-microbials and preservatives from our products while focusing on not just the human cells but also balancing the microflora, rather than killing it. At least that is the direction I see the industry should take, and the direction we are taking with Xycrobe. It will require changes to standard practices in packaging, etc. which will cost money, so only companies that have long-term vision will likely move this way. We will see which companies rise to the challenge.