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Sun Block-omics, Aisle Four? Unilever Taps Perlegen to Help it Build Better Shampoos

Perlegen Sciences has signed a multi-year research collaboration with consumer-products giant Unilever that will use its whole genome-association technologies to develop new lines of personalized products ranging from shampoos to snacks to sunscreens.

The companies hope “to understand why certain traits or bodily functions work, and then to see about ways to incorporate that into product development,” explained Perlegen spokesman Matthew Fust. “The intent is not to get your DNA test on your way to Walgreens.”

Fust said the collaboration is akin to Perlegen’s R&D partnership with Pfizer in which the companies investigate the genetic causes of cardiovascular disease. “With Unilever we can look into the fundamental genetic cause of sunburn, for example,” said Fust.

A typical volley would look like this: Unilever would send Perlegen DNA samples of people with curly hair and straight hair, for example. Between six and 12 months later, Perlegen would illustrate the genetic differences between these people whereupon Unilever, armed with those data, might eventually develop a kind of personalized shampoo.

If all goes well, split ends may soon go the way of Tay-Sachs disease.

Though the 73-year-old Unilever has discouraged Perlegen from disclosing which products have been slated for research — will it be the Dove moisturizing soap? Lipton tea? Hellmann’s mayonnaise? Breyers chocolate ice cream? — Fust described a likely R&D scenario thus: “You might think, for example, if there was an opportunity to discover something new about the way the body metabolizes fats, then you might create a new kind of savory snack that would have a more heart-healthy fat component,” he said. “Or, if we learned more about why certain people have oily hair and others have dry hair, you could imagine creating new kinds of shampoos that can be customized to different kinds of hair.”

Asked to respond to critics’ opinion that Perlegen’s technology might better be used to study, say, cancer or neurodegenerative disease, Fust said the Unilever deal does have a health-based component: “We certainly know that some people are better off applying sun-block than not applying sun-block, or eating low-fat food or non-fat food.”

For its efforts, Perlegen will receive research funding and stands to earn royalties tied to products that would appear on store shelves.

—KL

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