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Millions of people to help with new synthetic skin cream

A team of researchers has managed to recreate the most natural skin cream in existence. Using the DUBBLE beamline (Dutch Belgian Beamline) at the European Synchrotron Radiation produced on the basis of the information identified, has the same properties as vernix caseosa. This cream may have a therapeutic effect on patients whose skin has a reduced barrier function. Robert Rißmann obtained his PhD on Tuesday 17 March.


A newborn baby is covered with the natural skin cream vernix caseosa.

‘The good thing about synthetic vernix caseosa is the broad spectrum of possible applications,' Rißmann explains. ‘At first the idea was to help newborn babies, as they can have seriously underdeveloped skin. But the synthetic cream can also be applied to other skin conditions, such as dry skin or dermatitis. We could also include other substances in the cream so that it could work as a medicinal carrier.  And cosmetic applications are a further possibility.' The researchers have successfully demonstrated that they have developed a skin cream which is just as good as vernix caseosa.


‘Vernix caseosa is an ‘intelligent’ cream that adapts to the prevailing circumstances,' Rißmann explains. ‘After soaking for nine months in the amniotic fluid in the womb, the newborn baby's skin remains smooth and supple - unlike that of an adult who has soaked in the bath.  We haven't yet fathomed all the functions of the cream, but we have demonstrated that its properties are temperature-sensitive.  This means that the cream fulfils a number of roles before, during and after the birth, just as butter exhibits different characteristics in the oven and on the table.'  


Aerial photo of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. Photo: Air Isère.

The unborn baby in its wet and warm environment manages to develop a skin which is completely equipped to protect it in a cold and dry world which is overrun with bacteria. The protective cream covers the foetus and the newborn. Vernix caseosa aids the development of the skin both before and after the birth. The cream makes the skin waterproof in the uterus and ensures that it can develop in a wet environment, while after the birth it hydrates and cleanses, and can even heals ulcers. 


Rißmann has studied this natural cream extensively: 'Like most hydrating creams, vernix caseosa consists mainly of water. Its outstanding prope

rties are the result of the addition of 10% lipids (fat) and 10% corneocytes (dead skin cells). The exact composition of the blend is important.’ Using X-ray diffraction measurements with the DUBBLE beamline at ESRF he was able to deduce the correct ratios of the different types of lipids for the lipid structure. Rißmann: ‘Lipid molecules are shaped more or less like lollipops, with a rounded end that is preferably surrounded with water and a stick that, together with the sticks of the other molecules, forms a float. The corneocytes are just as important for the unique properties of the natural skin cream as the lipids.' The scientists also studied the shape of the corneocytes and their water content.'   

In the circular hall, 844 metres in circumference, of the DUBBLE beamlines, scientists and technicians use bicycles to get around more quickly.  Photo: Artechnique.


Microscope photos of natural vernix caseosa (A) and a synthetic cream (B). The natural cream contains corneocytes (black) embedded in red-coloured lipids. The synthetic cream is composed of hexagonal micro-particles of gel (black) which are surrounded by a semi-synthetic lipid lattice (red).  The scale lines are 50 μm. 

A natural source of the required type of fat molecules is lanolin, produced by sheep. Lanolin is also used to prevent cracked nipples in nursing mothers. The researchers selected fats which were closest to the measurements they made of vernix caseosa, and then used these fats to make a synthetic blend which behaves in the same way.  They discovered, for example, an artificial substance to imitate the shape and properties of the corneocytes.  ‘What is so special about this research project is that we have developed a complex medication from scratch, characterised it with many different methods and tested it on skin,' says Rißmann. Using different measuring methods, for example microscope measurement, the blend of synthetic ingredients looks the same as vernix caseosa. And the water content and other properties can be adjusted.  

Robert Rißmann: ‘Vernix caseosa is an ‘intelligent’ cream that adapts to the prevailing circumstances.’


The Leiden and Utrecht team received a subsidy from the STW Technology Foundation. The DUBBLE beamlines are largely financed by NWO. 

PhD defence: Tuesday 17 March, 16.15 hrs 
Robert Rißmann, Development of a vernix caseosa substitute. A novel strategy to improve skin barrier function and repair
Faculty: Science 
Supervisors: Prof. J. Bouwstra (Leiden University) and Prof. W. Hennink (Utrecht University) 
Co-supervisor: Dr M. Ponec (Leiden University) 

(17 March 2009)


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