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P&G’s Nano-Research Forms Basis of “Artificial Skin Layer” for Premature Babies

A bio-based, self-assembling nanoparticle, which only a few years ago was being explored by Procter & Gamble Co. for use in over-the-counter cosmetics now holds a future – creating new skin treatments for premature infants.
Nano World News spoke with Proctor & Gamble (P&G) [NYSE: PG] engineer Patrick Spicer, a specialist in complex fluids research, to learn more of the story of these oil-and-water-based nanoparticles, called cubosomes. What we found was that this portion of cubosome work is exciting and instructive in two ways:

  • First: Cubosomes could be a core building block for all sorts of new nano-based research projects, and
  • Secondly, the road which cubosome research has traveled over the past several decades shows that nano-success can often be more serendipity than strictly-mapped-out-science.

How Cubosomes Work To Protect Premature Babies
Cubosomes are self-assembled liquid crystalline nanoparticles -- with a big difference. Cubosomes, thanks to their unique structure which intermingles oil and water molecules, are nanoporous. That discovery was first made by European researchers in the 1980s.

To learn more about Proctor and Gamble’s ongoing nano research projects, plan to attend The Nano Science and Technology Institute’s Nano Impact Summit, October 19th in Washington, D.C. At the 1-day event, P&G engineer Patrick Spicer will discuss a range of P&G’s former and current nano-research and production projects. For more information go to http://www.nsti.org/NanoImpact2005/.

“The cubosomes permit a ‘breathing layer’ for skin at the nano-level, thanks in part to cubosomes’ bicontinuous structure of oil and water interweaved together but never crossing each other,” Spicer said. The structures and properties of cubosomes were unique enough to pique the interest of P&G researchers.

“So unlike Vaseline, which forms a protective barrier layer over your skin, cubosomes can both protect skin from outside elements AND at the same time let the skin ‘breathe’ and exchange moisture with its environment,” Spicer told NWN.

That would lead to the development by the University of Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital Skin Science Institute of an “artificial vernix” -- a cubosome-based outer protective layer that will help premature babies born without a fully developed outer skin layer. But, the road from there to here was anything but a straight line.

Connecting the Dots on Cubosomes
The connect-the-dots process that took cubosomes from research in Europe, to P&G and then to a children’s medical center is a story of the serendipity of nano-research, and also how sometimes the questions can be just as important as the research.

P&G researchers would build on the basic work of Swedish bio-researchers in the 1980s. “European researchers looking at the human digestive system found that when we eat fats or oils, like triglycerides, our body as part of digestion breaks down these complex fats into biological lipids or monoglycerides, which are the building blocks of cubosomes,” Spicer said.

While the basic cubosome science was understood, before P&G would be free to experiment with cubosome product applications, they had one remaining challenge, Spicer said. “Our task was to find a way to make large scale manufacture of cubosomes more efficient. The only way known to manufacture cubosomes when we started back in 1999 was to use very high energy processes like ultrasound to fragment bulk cubic phase into cubosomes,” he said.

It would take 2 years of research and trials, but Spicer and his P&G colleague Matt Lynch would crack the problem of cubosome mass-manufacture. Then came the next step – putting cubosomes to use in P&G products. “After [we developed] these new processes for making unique nanoparticles and enhancing their properties, it was expected that we would apply the processes to use cubosomes in our products,” Spicer said.

But what happened next was anything but expected. Priorities changed at P&G, and execs were more driven to invest in brand-name recognition, than in new product development. But, by that time, Spicer and his team were already working with the University of Cincinnati. “Because of our location, P&G does a lot of work with the university, especially on skin and cosmetic-related studies,” Spicer said.

When Spicer and his team told university researchers that P&G might shelve the technology, researchers from the UC Children’s Hospital reached out, wanting to explore whether cubosomes might be used in their human skin research.

“They were generating ideas as fast as we were,” Spicer told NWN. “And that’s when we heard about their idea of how they’d like to look at using cubosomes to alleviate the needs of premature babies. There just wasn’t a commercial product out there, and they were willing to try it.” P&G was also willing, as it turned out.

The company handed over their IP, patents and research notes to UC in 2002. Less than 2 years later, the university’s medical researchers filed for a patent for their cubosome-based “artificial vernix,” putting forth the idea of blending man-made and natural structures to protect babies with undeveloped skin layers.

“This was really clever, and really exciting work,” Spicer said. “And, it’s something we couldn’t have imagined when we started with cubosomes in 1999,” he said. To learn more about this story, attend the Nano Impact Summit on Wednesday, October 19th (http://www.nsti.org/NanoImpact2005/), where Dr. Pat Spicer will be presenting the latest developments and providing updates on P&G’s nanotech research and commercialization efforts. RSS feed of Nano World News

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