Skin cream began as battlefield aid

Max Jarman
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 27, 2006 12:00 AM

A synthesized version of a human protein that gives skin its elastic properties may someday help wounds heal faster and without scarring. A synthetic version of elastin may even help regenerate lost fingers and perhaps limbs.

But for now, a synthetic elastin called Elastatropin has been relegated to the $14 billion-a-year beauty industry, where it is the primary ingredient in a high-end face cream called DermaLastyl.

"It pays the bills," said Burt Ensley, the Sedona scientist who developed Elastatropin as an agent to help heal battlefield wounds.

Ensley, a microbiologist, created the substance in response to a request for proposals from the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency. The agency, which funds research into advanced science and its military applications, was seeking new approaches to healing battle wounds without scarring and with little or no lost performance.

Fresh wounds lack elastin, which contributes to the formation of scar tissue. Ensley believes that introducing synthesized elastin to damaged tissues could promote healing without scar tissue and resulting impairments.

The government turned down Ensley's request for a $4 million research grant to study the healing qualities of elastin.

"I knew there were other uses, and skin care seemed like a natural application," he said.

Since September, Ensley's company DermaPlus Inc. has sold more than 1,000 2-ounce bottles of DermaLastyl cream for $89 apiece. The product is sold via a Web site and a toll-free telephone number.

"My primary interest lies with exploring the healing properties of elastin," he said. "But for now, DermaLastyl is generating revenue."

Ensley said the synthesized elastin in the cream is absorbed into the skin and replenishes sufficient amounts of the protein to "significantly slow or prevent wrinkles and facial sagging."

Ensley's Elastatropin is grown in a laboratory in Switzerland on cabbage plants that are inoculated with the gene that spurs production of elastin in humans.

The plants produce the elastin protein, which is then extracted.

Ensley was director of research and president and chief executive officer of several biotech companies in New Jersey before moving to Sedona three years ago.

His area of expertise is the production of proteins in plants for use in humans.

The body produces elastin until adulthood, when the process stops. After that, the body's elastin slowly degenerates, producing signs of aging such as wrinkles and sagging skin.

Because elastin also gives elasticity to blood vessels, ligaments and internal organs, loss of the protein produces a number of age-related health problems.

Ensley said he is talking with the University of Arizona about a research collaboration that would allow him to continue to study the tissue-regenerating properties of elastin.

Meanwhile, DermaPlus is among a growing number of Arizona companies in the lucrative anti-aging skin products market.

Scottsdale-based Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp. is the leading producer of dermal fillers, which restore volume to skin to smooth facial wrinkles and folds.

Niadyne Inc., founded by two University of Arizona researchers, has developed a niacin-based skin-care line that claims to build skin resilience and counteract sun damage.

Ensley has been interested in elastin since the early 1980s when, as an employee of Amgen Inc., he researched elastin and its healing properties.

Although the initial research showed that the protein helped heal wounds without leaving scars, the company eventually dropped the project.

Ensley remained intrigued, and in 1996 obtained patents that cover various uses for elastin in skin care and wound healing.

When the government advertised in 2004 that it was "seeking innovative and aggressive proposals to better understand and affect the mechanisms of tissue healing following damage," Ensley worked full time to produce a synthesized elastin and present a proposal.

When his proposal was rejected, Ensley took the Elastatropin, added moisturizers and pieces of collagen protein called peptides and came up with DermaLastyl.

It's one of an increasing number of beauty products with high-tech ingredients and premium price. The market is attractive because of the high dollars and because it is substantially unregulated.

"Customers, not government agencies, determine the effectiveness of the products," Ensley said. "If it works for them, they'll buy it again and tell their friends."

It works for Anne DiBattista, a DermaLastyl user in Sedona who says the cream has produced a noticeable improvement in the skin on her forehead.

Medical applications for similar substances are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and the approval process can take years. Some companies give up and look for unregulated uses.

But Ensley wants to get back to exploring potential medical applications for Elastatropin and is talking with the University of Arizona about helping with the research in exchange for a future share in any profits from commercialization of the product.

Vicki Chandler, director of the university's Institute for Collaborative Bioresearch, said the institute has been talking with Ensley.

"We are doing our own research on tissue regeneration, so a collaboration would have a lot of traction," Chandler said.