S'pore labs strike gold in the beauty business

PHOTO: S'pore labs strike gold in the beauty business
Above photo is Prof Lane.

SINGAPORE - Move over, blockbuster drugs - you can't hog the labs. Biopolis, home to the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), is rolling out the welcome mat for skincare and personal care companies.

The newest corporate to sink in research dollars at A*Star is French beauty and haircare giant L'Oreal, which will start a research centre of eight scientists at A*Star's Institute of Medical Biology (IMB) to do research in skin biology.

Before this, personal care company Procter & Gamble (P&G) also took to Biopolis with a $250 million research and innovation centre that will open next year.

A*Star's newest partners are unlike its usual bedfellows among pharmaceutical and healthcare companies.

But beneath the beauty and personal care industry's gloss and glamour lies a competitive enterprise, constantly looking for scientific advancements to outsmart rivals.

Market researcher Euromonitor said the Asia-Pacific beauty and personal care industry in 2011 was worth US$114.3 billion, registering consistent growth since 2008 when it was a US$73 billion market.

With the Asian slice of the pie expected to reach US$140 billion by 2016, skincare companies hungry for higher sales and market share in Asia understand how important it is to understand Asian characteristics - akin to how drug companies have begun redeveloping drugs for specific genetic make-up.

"Setting up an R&D centre that is near the consumer base is also good marketing for the companies as they will be able to show consumers that they created these products with them in mind," observed Kelvin Chan, head of country research at Euromonitor International.

And Singapore's access to diverse Asian phenotypes and its concentration of scientists and researchers excelling in skin biology are why pharmaceutical companies and skincare companies alike get interested, said IMB executive director Birgitte Lane.

Helping A*Star's industry appeal along is the abstract sounding Skin Biology Cluster Platform, a collective of A*Star researchers.

A year ago, more than a dozen of them - not necessarily skin biology researchers - from different labs were pooled into the platform for their work that could have possible skincare applications.

The cluster platform - explained Prof Lane, who leads it - researches topics of particular interest to industry like the biology of the skin barrier (what's behind skin dryness or itching) and skin ageing, which covers wound healing and why diabetics have trouble with skin wounds.

"What's important to understand is that these industries - and scientists - would like to understand the biology of skin tissue better. At the root of being able to define and identify new lines for developing products is the need to understand how the biology of normal tissue works," said Prof Lane.

Like how skincare companies want to understand the causes of pigmentation, hair growth and ageing, biologists "would also like to know what defines normal processes in the skin", said Prof Lane.

"We are aiming for the same questions, but we might use the information in a different way."

The industry tie-ups do not mean A*Star undertakes contract research for these companies and the institutes will remain focused on their research, she said.

"We strongly believe - and evidence from other countries supports this - what will attract serious industry collaboration is the excellence of research, primarily. The rest is secondary. If we do contract research, we dilute our research and good scientists wouldn't want to come here and would go elsewhere," explained Prof Lane.

The collaboration between IMB researcher Bruno Reversade and South Korea cosmetics company AmorePacific is an instance of how basic science research dovetails with commercial interests.

Beom Shim of AmorePacific Singapore Research & Innovation Center said AmorePacific got in touch after reading in Nature Genetics about Prof Reversade's discovery of the PYCR1 gene, whose mutation is responsible for a rare "wrinkly skin" genetic disease.

"We recognised the significance of Bruno's finding and expected it to provide us an insight as to how a certain gene helps retain youthful skin," said Dr Beom.

At the same time, Prof Reversade, whose work revolves around rare genetic diseases, is keeping his eye on the "bigger picture" of furthering cancer research.

"The PYCR1 gene is involved in ageing, so it provides an entry point for . . . understanding cell death or loss of cell growth," he explained. "If we take that notion and apply it to cancer, we're in a good position to say we can knock out that particular gene in a cancer legion, to prevent it from metastasizing."