By Tony Fong
NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – 'Omics can be skin deep, and that's fine with Procter & Gamble.
While 'omics technologies have been driven largely by research into medical conditions such as cancer, neurological disorders, and heart disease, for more than a decade the consumer goods giant has been using genomics and proteomics technologies to develop its beauty and grooming products. Earlier this year, in a signal of the increasing role that 'omics technologies may play in the beauty market, P&G announced a collaboration with the Institute for Systems Biology to characterize the systems biology of various skin conditions, including skin aging.
P&G's 'omics-driven research has been conducted with little notice, but its work stretches back to the days when 'omics research was known simply as molecular profiling. As early as the late 1980's, P&G had projects investigating gene expression on a single-gene level, and in the early 1990s, the company began using tools such as Northern blots, Q-PCR, macroarrays, and its own custom-built microarrays.
By 1999, P&G had installed Affymetrix's expression profiling system in house, marking a new stage in the firm's push into the 'omics space. Since then, P&G has run more than 30,000 gene chips, Jim Thompson, P&G associate director of global biotechnology and systems biology, told GenomeWeb Daily News last week.
According to Jay Tiesman, principal scientist and Genomics Group leader at P&G, the company's use of genomic and post-genomic tools is a natural progression of its technology. "A lot of people use this as an advertising gimmick, but at P&G it's a logical extension of [our] technical expertise," he said. "We just consider it additional capabilities and tools."
Today, P&G's 'omics work is headquartered in Cincinnati, where it conducts research in genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, and transcriptomics.
Its core genomics facility is outfitted with a microarray platform from Illumina as well as Affy, including a recently purchased GeneTitan instrument. There, research in transcriptomics, as well as in genomics, provides its scientists with a "quick and broad" assessment of biological systems, Thompson said.
The firm also has a proteomics core facility where candidate biomarkers are evaluated, and P&G is awaiting delivery of a mass spectrometer with select-reaction monitoring capability in order to build out its proteomics capabilities. An informatics core facility and an assay development core facility, which includes a receptor assay lab, round out the company's 'omics infrastructure.
While genomics and proteomics now are a regular part of P&G's research and development, metabolomics has been used more sparingly, limited to those instances when there are indications that small-molecule metabolites may play a role in the "ultimate phenotype" of the system, said Thompson.
P&G also has started doing in silico modeling, or "computational biology to actually begin modeling biological systems on the computer in the hope that you can get the predictive tools … to eliminate the need for some of the wet-lab work," he said.
Next-generation sequencing has not yet been incorporated into the company's R&D, but according to Tiesman, P&G has evaluated a couple of next-gen sequencing platforms, not only for RNA sequencing and genetic applications, but also for microbial applications and community analysis.
"If you think about all the products that we make, there really is an 'omics capability that we've put against just about everything that we make," he said. In addition to research directed at the development of skin care and hair products, P&G's 'omics scientists have published studies, for example, in oral health for the company's Crest group, respiratory care for its Vick's group, and gastrointestinal care for its Pepto-Bismol, Metamucil, and Align probiotic products, he said.
"It's all epithelial biology, so we've developed a really strong internal core expertise … in understanding epithelial biology," Tiesman said. "So things that we learn in respiratory care may have great applications in oral care, or skin care, or others."
"T to T"
In general, P&G uses a technology development approach that it has dubbed "T to T" for targets to technologies. The company starts by building a technical model around an area of interest, such as aging, so that it can ascertain a fundamental understanding of the biology. Based on its model, researchers then identify targets which they believe can make a "positive difference" for that condition. Assays are developed, and "custom-made libraries of potential technologies … that are deployable in beauty and consumer products" are screened against the assays, Thompson said.
The hits are progressed through a tiered in vitro modeling system and eventually moved through to human clinical testing. Throughout the workflow 'omics technologies are used in the front and back end "to really understand the changes that we've induced with our products and our technologies and the benefits that are derived from them," Thompson said.
The company's 'omics-directed approach has resulted in ingredients which have been incorporated in its products, such as Pal-KT, a peptide which has been shown in in vitro genomic studies to inhibit collagen breakdown, and hexamidine, which has been found to restore the underactive lipid biosynthesis pathways in an in vitro human skin model.
In February, P&G took its 'omics ambitions a step further with its deal with Seattle-based ISB. In a statement announcing the partnership, the company said it "will take advantage of the expertise at ISB in regulatory network inference and modeling, and the expertise of P&G in skin biology and dermatology to characterize and develop models of the global molecular changes that occur in skin under different conditions."
Skin care is a major consumer product area for P&G, while ISB's interest is in skin disease including skin cancers. The partnership will also explore the systems biology of respiratory rhinovirus infection, P&G said.
Particular emphasis is being given to a proteomics method called select-reaction monitoring, sometimes called multiple-reaction monitoring, that eliminates the need for antibodies and allows for multiplexing. The two organizations aim to develop about 200 biomarkers that would be applicable to beauty products, Thompson said.
P&G and ISB also are collaborating on transcriptional regulatory network inference modeling, a method of doing in silico modeling of regulatory networks associated with controlling a tissue of interest.
After more than a decade of using gene chips for expression profiling, P&G has amassed a sizeable transcriptomic clinical dataset of skin conditions that it now will use in conjunction with ISB models in order to identify novel pathways and targets associated with those conditions. Such an approach, Thompson said, would effectively double the amount of information that is available, compared with using standard informatics tools on an expression profiling dataset.
Is It Necessary?
But is the use of 'omics technology really called for in the search for youth and perceived beauty, especially when cheaper scientific methods are available?
Consumer spending trends suggest the answer is yes. According to market research firm, IBISWorld, in 2010 people spent nearly $53 billion on cosmetic and beauty products. That's $1 billion more than Bulgaria's GDP for the year.
P&G declined to say how much of its $2 billion in R&D spending in fiscal 2010 was directed specifically at 'omics-directed research. Thompson said that though there may be cheaper methods than an 'omics approach, the justification is in what results from such an approach.
"I don't think you would get to the kind of answers that we get to. We're really trying to identify technically the best products, and the products that have the best efficacy," he said. "Consumer products have a long history of just throwing things out there, but we really want to have a real science behind the ingredients and the products that we put out there.
"Unlike some of our beauty competitors, there's a human clinical test demonstrating the efficacy of our technologies for virtually every single technology that we deploy in the product," Thompson added, "and if that's your standard then you have to use tools like 'omics that really get to the science that allows you to deliver those benefits."