By SARAH WILD
While most Europeans enjoy a holiday in the sun, high energy ultraviolet (UV) light from sunshine damages the DNA in our skin. The best-known adverse effect of excessive UV exposure is erythema (sunburn), but excessive UV is also the main culprit in some skin cancers.
As UV damage builds up, the skin cells stop functioning properly. At 4% of total cancers, skin melanoma is one of the top 15 most common types of cancer in Europe. It’s particularly prevalent in middle-aged and older people, especially in the 45-69 age group.
Now, Horizon-backed researchers are peering closer, looking into the molecular changes that take place when sunlight hits our skin.
They are also researching what – if any – effects it has on the rest of our bodies. This may lead to better ways to avert the harmful effects of UV exposure.
Following exposure to UV light, a clock starts ticking on our skin, according to Prof Carmit Levy, a genetics biochemist at the University of Tel Aviv in Israel.
Levy wanted to understand what happens to the skin’s protection system and how long it takes to repair any damage through the Horizon-funded UVdynamicsProtection project.
She discovered this skin’s internal clock while investigating what happens beneath the surface when we come into contact with UV rays. In tests, she and her team exposed two groups of lab mice to low levels of UV light in 24- and 48-hour intervals.
Upon exposure to sunlight, two things happen to the skin almost immediately. It produces the pigment melanin to protect the skin cells from further damage by blocking UV radiation, making the skin darker. The skin cells also set about repairing DNA damage.
Skin begins a 48-hour process of recovery as soon as it is exposed. If that process is disrupted by more exposure, the pigment-protection system does not work as well. The skin focuses on the more urgent task of DNA repair, rather than producing protective pigment. This leaves it further exposed to harmful rays. In cases where the skin cannot keep up with the demands for DNA repair, it can lead to cancerous growths.
‘What we found amazing was that when you expose the skin every day, you get less pigment,’ she said. ‘The system requires two days to get over the stress.’
‘We noticed that internal systems were also being changed,’ said Prof Levy. The fat and the lymph nodes of exposed mice were also different. The lymphatic system is part of the circulatory system which helps maintain health and fight infection.
UV exposure also triggered an appetite-stimulating hormone in male mice, known as ghrelin, making them eat more. They undertook a trawl through dietary data to see if the same was true in humans.
The team explored the diets of about 3 000 people throughout a year in a paper published in journal Nature Metabolism. They found that men’s appetites were at the whim of solar radiation, eating significantly more in the summer compared to women.
In mice, UV radiation also had a pronounced impact on sexual behaviour. ‘The males strongly prefer to be next to a UV-exposed female,’ she said. And both male and female mice were more sexually active and responsive compared to those that did not get a dose of UV radiation.
Levy suspects that UV exposure may play a role in a number of other bodily systems too, and plans to explore the immune system response next. ‘UV is also modifying the immune system, and the immune system is so relevant to cancer, to autoimmune disease, to everything,’ she said.
Meanwhile, other research teams are looking to prevent harmful UV radiation from reaching people’s skin in the first place, using improved sunscreen.
The molecules in sunscreen absorb the energy from the different types of UV radiation, namely UVA and UVB. Because the sunscreen absorbs the energy, the harmful radiation does not penetrate the skin and cause damage.
While there are many molecules that absorb UVB, UVA radiation has a longer wavelength which means it penetrates deeper into the human skin. It forms free radicals which interact with skin tissue to form wrinkles as well as melanomas. It can even pass through the windshield of a car, unlike UVB. So far, the effects of UVA are not as well understood as those of UVB.
‘UVA is more difficult,’ said Dr Natercia Rodrigues, a former Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) fellow at the University of Warwick. Rodrigues worked on the Horizon-backed SUNNRL project to develop a safe, effective and long-lasting sunscreen, especially to protect skin against UVA.
Rodrigues, a specialist in light absorption who had studied the molecule, wanted to see if its UVA absorption capabilities were still active when the molecule was included in lotions and complex commercial formulations.
In the search for alternatives, Rodrigues identified the aromatic methyl anthranilate as a possible sunscreen ingredient. This organic compound occurs naturally in grapes, jasmine, oranges and other plants. It’s used in food flavourings and the perfume and cosmetics industry because of its pleasant aroma.
Current-generation sunscreens on the market come with drawbacks. Avobenzone, for example, the most common sunscreen molecule on the market, quickly degrades once it has absorbed UVA, making it less effective at preventing skin damage.
This quick breakdown means typical sunscreen does not offer long-lasting protection. Over time, the chemicals it decays into can also interact negatively with other molecules in the environment and threaten biodiversity.
Common chemicals found in sunscreen have been found to damage marine life such as coral reefs and even dolphins.
Unfortunately, methyl anthranilate did not turn out to be as effective as commercially available alternatives, but while studying it, they stumbled upon an interesting finding.
They discovered that lab-based spectroscopy studies, which analyse how molecules absorb and reflect light, could potentially reveal novel ingredients for sunscreen.
In the past, Rodrigues recalls, when she used spectroscopy to study molecules’ absorption qualities, she was met with scepticism. ‘One of the things I heard a lot was “Why would you do that? No one’s ever going to use a sunscreen like that”’
‘But it turns out that pretty much everything we see in simple solutions (of liquids) you also see in complex mixtures. That’s a huge step,’ she said.
Currently, there are many stages involved in making a new cosmetic product, with numerous expensive studies along the way. Spectrographic analysis of how light interacts with the potentially sun-blocking molecules could save a lot of time.
‘Instead of doing trial and error all the way to in vivo studies (in living organisms), you could use fundamental spectroscopy a bit earlier in the process,’ Rodrigues said. ‘You can say, “With this sort of energy transfer mechanism, I think that this (molecule) is not going to be a good sunscreen. Let’s kill it now before we spend money.”’
The incidence of skin cancer has been increasing in Europe, creating a significant health burden. The EU Cancer Mission is supporting research on prevention, detection and treatment of cancer in Europeans. Follow the link to learn more about the EU Cancer Mission.
Research in this article was funded via the EU’s European Research Council and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). The article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
SUNSCREEN – SLOP ON BUT DON’T STOP
The search for the perfect sunscreen continues as Horizon researchers and others seek better solutions to the sunblock challenge. But one simple change can lead immediately to better UV protection.
Juan Cebrian is a senior scientist at Lubrizol Life Science which was involved in the SUNNRL project. Cebrian suggests a simple way to avoid getting burned.
The major mistake people make when it came to sunscreen is that they don’t apply it often enough, he says.
‘They apply less product than necessary to protect themselves. And they also forget to apply it several times,’ says Cebrian. Most people don’t slop on sunscreen often enough.
As UV exposure increases over time, the effectiveness of the sunscreen declines. ‘So it’s important that every two hours approximately, you renew the sunscreen you have applied on your skin,’ he suggests.
Making face creams from coffee beans as cosmetics get greener
By Tom Cassauwers
‘Plant ingredients have always been used in cosmetics,’ said Heiko Rischer, head of plant biotechnology at VTT, a Finnish research centre. ‘But in recent years, there’s been a revived interest in plant-based compounds. Consumers are interested in greener and more sustainable ingredients.’
Today, most of the key ingredients used in the €80 billion European cosmetics industry are synthetic or animal-based or taken from wild plants. Producing these ingredients sometimes includes solvents or processes that are unsustainable and are becoming less popular with consumers. Harvesting wild plants also puts natural ecosystems under pressure.
Rischer and other European scientists are investigating how to get more natural and sustainable plant-based ingredients into cosmetic products.
‘We grow plant cells and organs in bioreactors,’ Rischer said. ‘But other partners grow the entire plants in aeroponics and greenhouses or in the field.’
InnCoCells is researching the commercial production of innovative cosmetic ingredients from plants such as basil or aromatic ginger.
‘Our work is currently in a bio-prospecting stage,’ said Rischer. ‘We evaluate different plant species for compounds. We start from a wide range of potential plants and reduce them over time.’
The team aims to develop up to 10 ingredients to bring to the market within the next three years – although it’s still early days for a project that started in May 2021.
‘Finding our way in this jungle of plant options is a challenge,’ Rischer said.
The focus is on the bio-active compounds in cosmetics, meaning the ingredients that create a desired effect such as anti-ageing of the skin rather than ingredients like stabilisers or fragrances. An essential part of the work in InnCoCells is to have the cosmetics do what they promise in a transparent way.
‘Cosmetics need to open up the evidence, so that products actually do what they claim,’ said Rischer. ‘This would really help the consumer make choices. When we buy food, there’s a lot of information on the package helping the consumer. We need to do the same for cosmetics.’
In a separate, just-ended, initiative to green the cosmetics industry, the EU-funded Prolific project transformed plant residues into ingredients for beauty products. The team extracted polyphenols from coffee silverskins, a type of compound useful in cosmetics because of its anti-ageing effects on the skin. The polyphenol extract was standardised and used in a prototype face cream.
Normally, polyphenols are already derived from plants. But the compound is extracted through a chemical procedure resulting in waste that needs to be disposed of carefully. The project applied an environmentally friendly method, called subcritical water extraction, which only uses water under very high pressure to extract the polyphenols from the coffee silverskins.
All in all, the Prolific research used a range of new processes to derive useful compounds from agricultural waste of different plant sources such as coffee beans, fungi and legumes.
‘We use a cascading approach,’ said Annalisa Tassoni, the project’s scientific coordinator and an associate professor at the University of Bologna in Italy. ‘We do a first extraction, after which we look at what remains and try to extract another compound.’
Ultimately the residual fibres were used at different stages of production. Three prototype cosmetics were made by Greek partner company COSMETIC including a face cream, toothpaste and even a container jar that was made from plant fibres.
‘We valorise all the parts of the residues,’ said Georgios Tsatsos, general director of COSMETIC. ‘This goes up to the fibres left after the extraction process.’
Several steps need to be taken before these green compounds can reach the cosmetics market. The techniques used by Prolific in processing coffee are close to being introduced into cosmetics production, but the methods need to be scaled up so that plant-based compounds can compete with synthetic ones.
‘There’s a lot playing in favour of this process for coffee,’ said Tassoni, ‘We opened up perspectives, and confirmed that certain techniques really work.’
While it will be difficult to outcompete all of the synthetic techniques in use in the cosmetics industry, Rischer is optimistic about the outlook for more environmentally sound approaches.
‘The cosmetics market is very big and diverse,’ he said. ‘Consumers are demanding more sustainable and green cosmetics, and within our own niche, we can have an impact.’
Research in this article was funded by the EU. This material was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
In fight against male cancer, caring for mental health is a growing priority
By Anthony King
At a hotel in the Scottish city of Aberdeen about 20 years ago, urologist James N’Dow and other doctors met a group of men who had suffered prostate cancer to ask for feedback on their care before and after surgery. The clinicians were stunned by the critical, albeit constructive, responses.
‘Frankly, they felt abandoned,’ said Professor N’Dow, who works at the University of Aberdeen. ‘When we discharged them after surgery, we thought their general practitioners were looking after them and their GPs thought we were.’
Minding the mind
Dealing with the emotional and mental toll of prostate cancer has grown in importance along with detecting and curing the disease itself. Prostate cancer is the second-leading cancer among men in Europe and is sometimes mistakenly viewed as a disease only of old age. It caused an estimated 335 500 cases, or 12.5% of cancers, in the EU in 2020.
Prof N’Dow heads an Innovative Medicines Initiative project – PIONEER – on prostate cancer that seeks to improve diagnosis and treatment. A parallel EU-funded initiative called FAITH is developing an electronic application for cancer survivors that could help spot if the “black dog” of depression is stalking them.
‘Depression is a big thing in post-cancer survivors,’ said Gary McManus, who leads FAITH and works at the Walton Institute for Information and Communication Systems Science in Waterford, Ireland.
Four in 10 men who have been treated for prostate cancer say they are anxious or depressed to some degree, with troubles worsening the more advanced the cancer, according to a 2020 study by Europa Uomo, a European advocacy movement for sufferers of the disease. Prostate cancer can increase the risk of suicide.
Stopping the spread
When prostate cancer is caught early enough, a man can be cured. If it spreads beyond the prostate, the cost of treatment is high and delivers minimal benefit. Usually, the disease will spread – metastasize – to the bones and lymph nodes.
‘It is not curable at that stage,’ said Prof N’Dow. ‘We are still picking up too many men with metastatic disease – and this is a failure of the system.’
Without treatment, the average period of survival from prostate cancer that has spread beyond the gland is about 21 months. With some newer therapies, some metastatic prostate cancer patients can survive five years or more.
Even when the cancer is aggressive, if it is restricted to the prostate gland a patient can be cured by surgery or radiation therapy – or a combination. Almost 95% of these patients are still alive up to 15 years after their diagnosis. Treatment can, however, affect a man’s urinary or erectile function.
Prof N’Dow hails recent EU recommendations to screen prostate cancer in men up to the age of 70 using a blood test and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans based on an individual’s risk. Certain men over 50 and those of African descent or with a family history of prostate cancer are at heightened risk from this cancer and should be targeted for early detection.
Tracking the blues
Amid the efforts to improve detection and cures, FAITH’s planned app highlights the heightened focus on the psychological well-being of cancer patients.
Although it is being tested on people who have overcome lung and breast cancer, the app could be made to work for survivors of the disease in other parts of the body including the prostate.
In its study two years ago on anxiety or depression among men who have been treated for prostate cancer, Europa Uomo said 0.5% felt either one to an “extreme” degree and almost 4% to a “severe” extent. Nearly 11% and 28% fell into “moderate” and “slight” categories, respectively.
A tracker of sorts, the app is being developed by European technologists and cancer doctors working together. The tests are taking place at three hospitals in Ireland, Spain and Portugal.
At home, a wearable watch records movement and sleep patterns that get fed into a phone app. Patients must occasionally answer questions from the app, for example about dietary choices, while a voice module checks for any changes in a person’s speech that may indicate depression.
In all, 27 measurements are being tracked in a bid to uncover which ones could flag a downward trajectory in a patient’s mental health. Performance will be compared against clinical questionnaires that doctors already use to monitor patients.
‘Once the patient is signed out of the hospital, they’re often on their own,’ said McManus. ‘If the hospital gives this app to a patient, doctors can remotely monitor how the patient is getting on.’
The phone app will not send sensitive patient data to the Internet. Instead, an algorithm is updated on the phone and fed back to the development team, which helps improve the app’s performance.
‘We’ll build our algorithm and try to pick out these downstream trajectories,’ said McManus. ‘Then we are basically training the app.’ Eventually, if the app picks up worrying signals, ‘an alarm is raised in the hospital and the patient is contacted,’ he said.
The mental-health aspect of cancer diagnosis and care needs to be improved across Europe, according to Prof N’Dow, who said that this is a central goal of the European Association of Urology, where he is adjunct secretary general responsible for education.
‘The impact psychologically of the diagnosis or consequences of treatment is huge,’ he said. ‘This is something we understood in PIONEER.’
The project has sought to ensure that treatment comparisons take into account the impact on patient quality of life such as sexual, bowel or urinary function. Also crucial has been to identify those outcomes that matter most to patients.
That is why PIONEER has included patients themselves in discussions aimed at determining key unanswered research questions about prostate cancer.
‘Patients understand what they need,’ Prof N’Dow said. ‘Our job is to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and get them back to the life they knew before it was rudely interrupted by disease. The psychological well-being of the patient and their families should be recognized as central to that.’
Research in this article was funded via the EU. This material was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
Central Asian Countries Show Commitment to a Cross-regional Approach to Pandemic Prevention
Government officials representing health, environment, and agriculture sectors from all of Central Asian countries participated in a regional ministerial meeting Protecting Livestock and Preventing Pandemics that took place in Almaty today. The participants reaffirmed commitment to cooperating on One Health–a cross-sectoral approach that aims to help the region prevent future pandemics. The participants signed a communiqué giving a formal start to the development of the Central Asia One Health Framework for Action and a call for joint resource mobilization in support of the initiative.
Managing global health risks requires full cooperation between the livestock, environmental and public health sectors, at the national, regional, and global levels. One Health is an integrated, unifying approach that aims to sustainably balance and optimize the health of people, animals, and ecosystems. It recognizes that the health of humans, domestic and wild animals, plants, and the wider environment are closely linked and inter-dependent.
“The case for collaboration on One Health in Central Asia could not be clearer,” said Tatiana Proskuryakova, World Bank Regional Director for Central Asia. “The region shares many common challenges but also strengths and opportunities that can help the region realize One Health. What we are witnessing now is Central Asia setting an example for other regions and countries on how to work together for future generations’ health and wellbeing”.
The event in Almaty builds on the discussions held during a meeting in Tashkent in July 2022 when participants agreed on the need to prepare the Central Asia One Health Framework for Action that could provide a blueprint for the countries in the region to move forward with concrete actions, as well as would include a roadmap for investments at national and regional levels.
More specifically, the Regional One Health Framework for Action aims to contribute to addressing three high-level goals shared among Central Asian countries: pandemic prevention and preparedness, resilience of food systems, and improving regional trade and the competitiveness of agriculture. In addition, the Framework for Action will identify focus areas and mechanisms for regional collaboration, and include a One Health dashboard to monitor progress, while facilitating policy responses to emerging issues.
“Investing in One Health is an investment in humanity’s future. The proposed investment framework helps governments and development partners to avoid the cycle of panic-and-neglect and direct financial resources. This integrated, risk-based approach requires compliance with international health standards and promotes country ownership, while recognizing its global public goods nature. The vast majority of investments in One Health will also result in significant co-benefits, including improving food safety, preserving biodiversity and reducing GHG emissions” said Martien van Nieuwkoop, the World Bank’s Global Director for Agriculture and Food. “The World Bank is collaborating with several countries in Central Asia on this approach, and we are encouraged by the region’s resolve to work together to invest in One-Health as an important building block for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response”.
The development of the Framework for Action will support regional dialogue between networks of decision makers and technical staff, including epidemiologists, veterinarians, and environmental specialists from the three operational sectors. This will be especially useful in cases of transborder disease outbreaks, as it would enable sharing of information, quick integration of new knowledge, and regional action.
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