The dream of retaining youthful looks into old age came a step closer yesterday after scientists announced that they had identified the key genes involved in ageing skin. Using data generated by the human genome project – the international effort to decode human DNA – researchers have found 1,500 separate genes that govern how long people stay free from wrinkles.
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The team – led by scientists working for cosmetics giant Procter & Gamble – also believe they have identified the eight major causes of ageing skin.
Despite decades of research and billions of pounds of funding, the cosmetics industry has struggled to develop creams and lotions that reverse ageing.
The best that most of the expensive anti-ageing creams can do is smooth over wrinkles or plump up the skin
Out of the 20,000 to 25,000 known human genes, they have found around 1,500 that play a key role in ageing skin.
‘The human genome project has made it possible for us to analyse ageing right down to the hundreds of genetic changes that happen in our skin as we get older,’ Dr Tiesman said.
Skin ages in eight separate ways, each one controlled by its own group of genes, he added.
Whether you grow old gracefully like Cliff Richard – or wrinkled like Keith Richards – depends partly on your lifestyle and partly on these genes.
Dr Tiesman and his research team believe one of the most important factors is hydration – the way that skin collects and retains its moisture, using molecules that bind water into skin.
As skin gets older, the genes that control this process become less active and skin can retain less moisture, leading to wrinkles.
Dr Tiesman found that up to 700 genes could be involved.
Another ‘ageing pathway’ involves collagen – the protein that gives skin its underlying structure.
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Why skin deteriorates with age: As people get older, the genes that degrade collagen can become overactive, leading to more wrinkles
As people age, the genes that degrade collagen can become overactive, leading to more wrinkles. The team has found 40 genes involved in the collapse of collagen. Inflammation was found to involve about 400 genes, while another group of genes influence how the skin reacts to sunlight.
The skin’s response to ‘free radicals‘ – the molecules that can damage a cell’s damage – is also crucial to how it ages.
By narrowing down the DNA involved with skin ageing, researchers hope to create drugs and creams which can stimulate some genes and suppress others to restore youthful looks.
Professor Anthea Tinker, who studies the social aspect of ageing at King’s College London, said: ‘Older people care about their appearance just as much as any other age group and they are an important and growing market.’
Most anti-ageing creams don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. However, a reliable clinical trial published earlier this year showed that Boots No7 Protect and Perfect range actually worked.
Manchester University scientists found that a fifth of people who used the cream for six months saw improvement in their skin. The cream appeared to trigger the production of a protein called fibrillin-1, which makes skin more elastic.