NEW HAVEN, Conn., Feb. 24, 1998 (Nasdaq: VION)--A collegial conversation over a research laboratory bench, the image of a natural-looking tan, some transformational chemistry, and a commitment to protect people from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays have proven to be a winning combination for a Yale University School of Medicine scientist.
John M. Pawelek, Ph.D., a senior research scientist in the department of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine, recently was awarded a U.S. patent entitled Cosmetic Melanins for producing and composing synthetic melanins that may be used in cosmetic products.
Through its Office of Cooperative Research, Yale licensed the Melasyn technology originating in a medical school laboratory to Vion Pharmaceuticals, Inc. of New Haven. This month, Vion announced an exclusive world-wide licensing agreement with San-Mar Laboratories of Elmsford, NY., to manufacture and market products containing Melasyn.
Throughout nature, melanin is used in such diverse areas as protection from ultraviolet radiation, camouflage and species recognition. It is insoluble and difficult to work with, making it impractical for inclusion in creams and lotions. "But we have invented simple methods for creating melanin substitutes that dissolve readily in water and, when incorporated into cosmetic creams, can be spread evenly on the skin to instantly produce a tan," Dr. Pawelek states.
In inventing this unique product, Dr. Pawelek employed one of scientists' historical approaches to research: self-experimentation. "For nearly four years, I have been applying the material daily to my own face, and it produces such a natural-looking tan that it even surprises my dermatologist colleagues at Yale," he quips. "Scarcely a day goes by when someone on an elevator or in a hallway doesn't ask me where I was on vacation."
The ingredients make all the difference. "As one of our starting materials, we use the active ingredient of the aloe vera plant," the scientist says. "When this substance is transformed into melanin, it generates a water-soluble product and a lustrous tan."
The Yale laboratory work behind the patenting and licensing offers interesting insight into the process of research and development of potential new products. "It started several years ago with our basic research on skin enzymes that produce melanin," Dr. Pawelek explains. "Melanin usually is insoluble in water and forms a gummy solid in test tubes. One day, however, we noticed that the melanin in one enzyme assay remained dissolved in water," he recalls.
Dr. Pawelek credits his colleague, Jean Bolognia, M.D., who conducts her research in his laboratory, with the idea for cosmetic use of melanin. If the melanin were really soluble, she surmised, it should be useful as a cosmetic. "From that point on," he says, "we began a search for the right combination of ingredients and methods to produce cosmetic melanin.
"We were motivated by the thought that melanin naturally protects our skin from cancer induced by ultraviolet light. Perhaps, we reasoned, synthetic melanin would do the same," he says. "If we could design a melanin that produced a natural-appearing tan, we believed that people might be attracted to the product through its cosmetic qualities and simultaneously apply a sun-protectant, affording them added sun protection and potentially reducing the incidence of sun-induced skin cancer," hopes Dr. Pawelek, a cancer biologist who studies melanoma. Skin cancers are the most prevalent type of cancer in the world, so even a small reduction in their incidence would make an impact on a significant number of people.
"We have, in fact, shown that Melasyn protects the skin of mice from ultraviolet light," he notes. "Now, controlled clinical studies are needed in order to be able to claim its protective effects in humans, and those will take months. In the meantime, we hope that its excellence as a cosmetic self-tanner will be sufficient to promote use."
Frank Penna, executive vice president of San-Mar Laboratories, states, "We are very excited about the Melasyn technology. Its potential applications are quite varied, from cosmetics to sunscreens." San-Mar intends to aggressively pursue commercial development.
The Melasyn technology grew out of Vion's cancer research collaborations with Dr. Pawelek and his Yale colleagues. This same group discovered Vion's TAPET (tumor amplified protein expression therapy), which potentially uses a genetically engineered strain of the Salmonella bacteria to target cancerous tumors and eventually inhibit tumor growth.