The seemingly disparate worlds of beauty and medicine are prone to chance encounters from time to time. In fact, it’s not at all unusual for scientific breakthroughs to make their debut in the world of cosmetics where there’s comparatively less red tape, fewer legalities, trials and tests to contend with.
After all, cosmetics companies aren’t promising to save someone’s life so much as make them look a little more attractive while they’re living it. This, of course, means that the beauty biz can be incredibly quick to market with technology or data that might take years to appear in the medical arena. For a medical product or device to gain approval from the relevant authorities, it has to undergo years of clinical testing and rigorous studies.
Take gene analysis, for example. While taking a close look at DNA is still a relatively new (and sorely misunderstood) form of research, beauty brands like Geneu have already found a way to make it their own. The premise of the luxury startup is really quite simple: by spotting the tiniest of mutations in a person’s DNA, it is possible to understand the specific way in which a person is ages (it’s worth noting here that it is an individual’s genotype that determines how they age, not the fancy off-the-shelf cream that they’ve bought). With this information, it is possible to take preventative and sometimes curative measures…in the form of a Geneu’s bespoke creams.
It is on the swanky premises of Geneu’s flagship store on London’s Bond Street, that I have my cheeks swabbed, CSI-style. The whole store looks like the set of a futuristic 90s music video (it turns out that Nick Rhodes, he of Duran Duran fame, has had a lot of creative input in the design-savvy brand).
PHD-qualified advisors extract the DNA from my saliva and analyse it on the spot thanks to a very clever piece of microchip technology (more of that later). Within 30 minutes, the advisor has determined my genetic relationship with two key agers: collagen breakdown and antioxidant protection. Of all the variables that contribute to ageing, these are the two worth monitoring. Collagen is the scaffolding that holds your face (and most of your body) up while antioxidant damage inhibits healthy cell turnover and recovery.
With all the data in front of them, the staff then mixes up a bespoke skincare cocktail on the spot. It contains specific quantities of the actives (Hyaluronic Acid & collagen) I need for my specific genotype (they also dish out some rather obvious lifestyle advice about not smoking, sun exposure and so forth). The £600 price tag includes an initial assessment along with 2 weeks’ worth of product, packaged in some rather snazzy personally engraved capsules.
THE MICROCHIP THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING:
The ability to offer this kind of service hinges on a tiny microchip devised by Regius Professor Christofer Toumazou, a British electronic engineer turned genetics pioneer and member of the Royal Society. His use of microchips has already changed the medical landscape in a very real way.
Born at his lab in Imperial College London, the tiny chip marries genetic chemistry with DNA sequencing. This means the chip can analyse someone’s DNA in a matter of minutes, and pinpoint any mutations which might culminate in disease or illness. This feat is put into context when you consider there is only a 0.1% difference between any two humans, irrespective of their race, colour or creed. We are 99.9% identical and these tiny mutations can make the difference between life or death.
The applications of this kind of technology are revolutionary. There is the field of pharmacogenomics (prescribing individualized therapy based on a patient’s genetic profile) for starters. A quick microchip-driven test could allow a patient to see his predisposition for, say, diabetes years before the symptoms become apparent. This would allow the individual to take cautionary lifestyle measures in order to prevent or offset the likelihood of disease. The chip could also allow for on-site testing in serious accident and emergency scenarios. Less dramatic but of equal importance is the amount of damage limitation that comes with this kind of technology. With such precise data in front of them, clinicians won’t keep on prescribing the wrong meds to their patients (an alarmingly real problem all over the world).
Witnessing serious technology in such a frothy industry feels like a disconnect. When I point it out to Professor Toumazou at the end of our meeting, he responds with sincerity. “By beautifying medical technology, the message becomes less scary in the healthcare arena,” he says. And while the mainstream medical application of this kind of gene analysis is still couple of years away, one expects it won’t feel quite so sci-fi when it reaches the masses.