Fighting the aging process with OneSkin
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Fighting the aging process with OneSkin

From hyaluronic acids and chemical peels to deep exfoliation, modern anti-aging remedies often feel less like pampering and more like a war against your own skin. But Carolina Reis Oliveira, CEO of OneSkin Technologies has an alternative: a novel solution that selectively targets only zombie skin cells while leaving healthy cells unscathed.

On the latest episode of the What’s NEXT podcast, I spoke with Carolina about why we need to be kinder to our skin, what drew her to the problem of aging, and the challenges of breaking into the Silicon Valley startup scene from outside the U.S.

Precision skincare
Anti-aging skincare is a booming industry, with a market value forecast to reach $271 billion by the end of 2024. For the consumer, the rapid pace of new technological innovations can make it tricky to separate science-backed serums from snake oil. But Carolina’s concerns are bigger than a product merely being ineffectual.

“Today, a lot of consumers are more aggressive in terms of how they look at aging,” she explained. “They do whatever they can to keep themselves young, and sometimes they are not aware that they are sacrificing their health in the long term”

In particular, she points to the chemical peel — now the most popular skincare treatment in the U.S. — which uses acid or retinol to remove the entire upper layer of skin cells. The problem is that all skin cells don’t age equally, and such treatments also wipe out a person’s valuable healthy cells in the process.

“As we age our cells start accumulating damage in their DNA each time they divide,” Carolina said. “Eventually some cells accumulate so much damage that they stop dividing – otherwise they’re at risk of becoming cancerous. We call these cells ‘zombie cells’ because they should die, but they don’t. These start secreting molecules that can be detrimental to your tissue — causing inflammation and collagen degradation, which leads to wrinkles, sagging, and even skin cancer.”

OneSkin’s solution is the development of a new peptide, a small molecule that can selectively bind to only to those zombie cells — and eliminate them. This allows the body to start generating new healthy cells in their place.

“We focus only on eliminating the bad so there are no side effects, like the inflammation that you see with skin peels,” Carolina said. “In our initial tests, we’ve already found that people start to see improvement within a month, and we got feedback that it’s also helping other issues beyond wrinkles, such as rosacea and dark spots.”

Going beyond skin-deep
Because skin care treatments can be applied externally, they may be classified as a cosmetic. That makes the process of bringing them to market much quicker and easier than pharmaceuticals, which are more heavily regulated. OneSkin is on track to launch its first product for sale direct to consumers in the spring of 2020.

But Carolina and her team have no intention of stopping there. “The skin is only the first application, but we want to develop rejuvenation therapies that will be systemic,” she said.“The long-term vision is to address aging as a whole. We want to offer a range of solutions from nutrition, to behavior change, to therapeuticals that you can take orally or intravenously.”

As life expectancy has increased, due largely to antibiotics and improved hygiene, the burden of age-related diseases has grown, too. Worldwide, these maladies are responsible for around two-thirds of all deaths — at a rate of about 100,000 per day. By contrast, 100 years ago they collectively accounted for less than a third.

“Aging is the main risk factor for most disease,” Carolina said. “If we’re able to prevent aging, or even reverse it, then we will be able to delay the onset of all those chronic diseases and extend the years that we live in a good health. By understanding and preventing aging, we expect to really have a more significant impact then if we try to solve a specific disease.”

The importance of finding your focus
Carolina didn’t initially enter the biotech industry with consumer-facing ambitions. While completing her doctorate in Brazil, she met the three other women with whom she co-founded a start-up focused on using stem cells to grow human tissues in order to replace the need for animal testing.

Realizing this was a crowded market, they shifted their focus to developing a platform for testing anti-aging products and, through the three years spent studying the mechanisms of aging, hit on a solution that they realized they could market themselves.

If OneSkin Technologies were to become successful, however, the founders thought they would need a foothold at the center of the startup universe: Silicon Valley. And so, in 2016, Carolina and the company moved to the US to take part in the San Francisco-based life sciences accelerator, IndieBio.

“This was the first time that I had to really find my path, to identify where we are going and to make clear what problem we are solving,” she said. “Building our name in the U.S., coming from Latin America, or anywhere outside of Silicon Valley, it’s not easy. You really have to prove why you deserve to be here.”

Carolina credits her initial success partially to the additional determination that came with knowing that if she didn’t succeed there was no fall-back job waiting for her in the U.S. biotech industry, and that her chances of making OneSkin successful back in Brazil were much lower. But she also points to the importance of being able to rely on her co-founders.

“We are all brilliant scientists, super smart and super powerful,” Carolina said. “Together we complement each other in terms of expertise and in terms of personalities. I think it can work as an inspiration to other women and other Latinos, that we are as capable as anyone else here.”

To learn more about the future of skincare and the fight against aging, you can listen to the full podcast episode in the embedded player above, or subscribe through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, RSS, or your favorite podcast app of choice.

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