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Take your brain in a new direction: Careers in ecobiology

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Looking for a new research direction? Consider French skincare company NAOS and ecobiology, the study of the relationships of organisms to their natural environments.

“Wanted: Scientists with several brains”

That’s how the director of innovation at the French skincare group NAOS characterizes the company’s research demands. NAOS wants people, says Eric Perrier, “who look far beyond the name of an ingredient—people who care about the skin, the people, and the planet.” Of course, he acknowledges, “everyone could say, ‘Yes, I care’—so what does that really mean?”

NAOS relies on a wide range of scientific expertise, from cell biology and toxicology to chemistry and bioinformatics. But all its research is underpinned by a holistic approach that its founder calls “ecobiology.”

“We’ve been talking about it for some years—about human well-being, about an ethical approach to business,” says Jean-Noël Thorel. NAOS’s three brands—Bioderma, Institut Esthederm, and Etat Pur—are billed as ecobiology in the service of dermatology, aesthetics, and personalized skincare, respectively. “We don’t want to just treat damage, but also to anticipate damage.” An ideal product, he says, will “make the skin more robust and resilient.”

Thorel’s philosophy is more than “skin deep.” NAOS considers the skin as an ecosystem “because it is composed of different kinds of cells, each with their own specific environment. They continually interact with each other and with our environment,” explains Aurélie Guyoux, a biologist and biochemist who heads the group’s R&D effort. “The future of biology is really to consider all the interactions in the ecosystem—hence [the name] ‘ecobiology.’”

Aurélie Guyoux

Aleksandar Topalovic

Discovering and tracing molecules

NAOS’s approach means that it will use only traceable substances, so that it has a complete understanding of the supply chain. Its researchers must consider both the provenance of potential ingredients, and whether they can be replenished. “This is not simple. Everything comes from something—petroleum, mining, plant sources.” NAOS, says Perrier, has a responsibility for stewardship of raw materials so that they’re available for the next generation. 

Nor is it enough to identify a useful plant extract for a skin formulation, because analysis will reveal hundreds if not thousands of molecules. “The debate between natural and chemical products is a lie. Just saying a product comes from nature, [so it] will be good for the skin, is just a marketing tool,” Thorel argues. “We humans are chemical machines, so I have no problem with chemical products as long as they do the job.”

However, suppliers usually provide what Perrier describes as “an intense mixture,” so NAOS needs researchers who understand chemistry and biochemistry to strip ingredients down to their essentials. “If you apply hundreds of molecules to the surface of the skin, you get no answers,” says Perrier. Moreover, there is the danger of a “cocktail” effect, whereby different chemicals combine to have an adverse impact.

Another major challenge is to avoid endocrine disruptors. These substances (natural or synthetic) can interfere with the hormone systems that regulate human reproduction and development, and can also cause cancers. As soon as scientific evidence suggests that a molecule has this disruptive effect, NAOS will remove it from its formulations. 

The future of biology is really to consider all the interactions in the ecosystem—hence [the name] 'ecobiology.'

Aurélie Guyoux

Using as pure a molecule as possible allows researchers to identify the optimum concentration for the task at hand and to ensure it does no harm—for example, that there’s no inflammatory response and that the barrier function of the skin is not compromised.

NAOS has also discovered that it’s not enough to think only of the active ingredients: It must factor in their interaction with the vehicle—or galenic formulation—that delivers the active ingredient to the skin layer and to the target cells. 

Isabelle Benoit, who has studied both chemistry and polymer science, has been scientific director for two NAOS brands. But before that, she worked with raw materials suppliers, doing R&D and developing formulations. “It really is a step ahead at NAOS: We anticipate what happens to the molecule when it is absorbed into the skin,” she asserts.

Plans for some relaunches of its products, especially those for sensitive skin, are underway. These formulations will take into account new discoveries about interaction and communication between skin cells, as well as the interaction of skin cells with the skin microbiome. NAOS researchers are trying to understand how the predominant skin cells, the keratinocytes—which maintain skin structure and regulate immune responses—communicate with the microbiome, especially under stress. Cell communications are a major focus of NAOS research, which funds Ph.D.’s to address key research questions ranging from skin cancer to cell aging.

NAOS scientists also consider how pollution or diet will impact the skin and its microbiome. Considering the myriad of interactions between skin cells and their environment, and identifying those that are important for skin physiology and pathology, is what defines ecobiology, says Perrier.

Collaborate to innovate

“We can’t have all the necessary expertise in our company, which is why we have partnerships with startups and universities,” explains Benoit, now general manager of the newly created NAOS Institute of Life Science. Its goal is to design and discover new materials that NAOS will formulate in its products. The Institute is “our brainstorming platform, and the entry point for any form of external collaboration.”

“It comes from a realization that if we want to formulate following ecobiology principles, then in some fields we lack raw materials—specifically in the realm of sun protection, oxidative stress, and also pollution,” adds Benoit.

Miroslav Radman (left) and Jean-Noël Thorel (right)

Aleksandar Topalovic

The first fruits of collaboration come from research that NAOS is funding at the Mediterranean Institute for Life Sciences (MedILS) in Split, Croatia. Set up by molecular biologist Miroslav Radman, MedILS is exploring the biology of aging and age-related diseases. It is particularly interested in mechanisms that provide protection against damage to proteins (e.g., damage caused by oxidation).

The company’s point man, Francois-Xavier Pellay, has a background in biochemistry, biology, chemistry, and bioinformatics, and embodies the multidisciplinary approach that NAOS is looking for in its scientists. He has isolated carotenoids from a cold- and ultraviolet (UV)-resistant bacterium. Carotenoids, developed originally by plants, are very good at capturing reactive oxygen species. Pellay’s unpublished research suggests that carotenoids bind to protein, functioning not only as an antioxidant, but also as a chemical shield to protect the proteome of human skin cells against stress such as UV light and pollutants.

What is most interesting to NAOS is that such bacteria synthesize not one, but several different kinds of carotenoids—which differ in their affinity for water—so that the skin can protect its various oil- or water-based cell structures.

Now researchers are scaling up a biofermentation process that, according to Benoit, has probably reached its optimum yield. She explains that NAOS doesn’t intend to genetically modify the bacteria to alter the yield: “That’s one of the lessons from ecobiology—make the most of what you’ve got, don’t change it.”

Benoit expects that NAOS will develop a formulation using a specific carotenoid-derived molecule, although it may take several years to come to market.

Another venture is with French startup Attonuclei. The nanotechnology company is developing quantum dots—minute molecules of less than 10 atoms in size. At the quantum scale, the molecules behave differently from their natural counterparts. NAOS is working with Attonuclei on new forms of existing materials to evaluate their potential use, for instance, in sunscreen products. NAOS hopes to use the research to push skin protection in a new direction.

New career directions

Eric Perrier

Aleksandar Topalovic

One key facet of a career in ecobiology is about developing the capacity to “look at the same object from different angles” suggests Perrier. NAOS researchers “view their job as a multifactorial thing,” he says. “They’re not doing a screening based on one model or one enzyme, and the best result is what they’ll use. It’s about multiple questions and multiple hypotheses” to reach the best solution.

Perrier adds, “We don’t often find university graduates who have this holistic way of thinking—maybe one aspect, but not the global picture.” So the company grows its network and broadens its outlook by not hiring from the same universities. In that way, NAOS will learn more from having a diverse mix of employees.

Recruits have a “strong degree of freedom to operate,” says Perrier, and every opportunity to take their career in new directions.

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