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Companies Look to Put Brakes on ‘Aging’

As it turns out, the “Fountain of Youth” is bubbling up right here in San Diego, where scientists are making headway on discoveries that could allow us to remain handsome and healthy for decades upon decades after the wrinkles normally set in.

While no one has quite figured out how to actually turn back the years, a team of pioneering researchers at Scripps Health in La Jolla is doing the next best thing: analyzing 2,000 human genomes for nature’s secrets into living a long and disease-free life. The findings can be used to develop drugs, vitamins and possibly even vaccines that will help people evade chronic ailments such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes, said Eric Topol, chief academic officer of Scripps Health and the principal investigator of the study.

Meanwhile, San Diego-based Halozyme Therapeutics Inc. is in the clinical testing phase of a novel drug that targets cellulite. And Carlsbad’s SkinMedica Inc., which was recently recognized as the fastest-growing skin-care brand in the U.S., is seeing soaring demand for its TNS Essential Serum, which mimics the skins own healing properties to bring back elasticity.

“Demographics are such that people are living longer and they’re more concerned about their health — not only their internal health but also their external health, or the way they look,” said SkinMedica President Theodore Schwarz.

The company’s revenues have grown about 30 percent for each of the past eight quarters, he said, declining to offer financial specifics. Privately-held SkinMedica’s topical products are sold through dermatologists and plastic surgeons, though most of the goods don’t require a prescription.

Are You ‘Wellderly’?

Of all the age-defying developments in San Diego, the one with the most potential to ensure people are healthy well into their golden years is going on at the nonprofit Scripps Health, where Topol and his team are recruiting as many as 2,000 so-called “wellderly” people to donate their DNA to a gene bank for analysis.

All of the study participants must be at least 80 years old and free from major diseases and long-term medications. Scripps entered into a partnership with Mountain View-based Complete Genomics Inc., which is sequencing the DNA at no charge and providing results by the end of the year. Usually the company charges $4,000 per genome for high-volume orders.

Topol said it’s the largest-ever whole genome study of a single phenotype — which in this case, is a population of people who have in common a healthy lifespan, despite genetic markers that would indicate they should have developed chronic disease. “These are not just health-and-fitness types,” Topol said, noting that some participants smoke heavily or have other unhealthy habits.

The 30-person research team will be looking specifically for “modifier” genes that cancel out the risk of disease. Among the participants is 87-year-old San Diego Padres radio announcer Jerry Coleman and 85-year-old actress Cloris Leachman, Topol said. Scripps is still accepting DNA samples from healthy elderly people of Asian and African descent. “We know that the genomic architecture is quite different between the three different ancestries,” he said.

The research will produce genetic variant data that could eventually be sold to research groups or pharmaceutical companies. “There are a lot of things we can do once we know the pathways that keep people out of trouble,” Topol said.

Goodbye, Dimples and Wrinkles

While some scientists at publicly held biopharmaceutical firm Halozyme Therapeutics are developing drugs to combat pancreatic cancer, others are focused on ways to defeat the ugly problem of cellulite.

Whether for disease or for aesthetics, all of the drugs have one thing in common: They work by targeting the area outside the cell known as the extracellular matrix, said President and CEO Gregory I. Frost. “Matrix biology has relevance in many different areas,” Frost said. “We go where the science takes us and where it makes sense.”

Four years ago, seeing an opportunity, the company shifted some of its scientists to a new unit focused on issues of beauty. “They kind of got a laugh out of it at first,” Frost said. “But they took the same type of rigorous scientific approach to this area. We’re now starting to see the fruits of our labor.”

Halozyme is testing a way to smooth out cellulite dimples in women by using small Botox-like injections of an enzyme. The company in October kicked off its first clinical trial of the experimental drug HT1-501 in Mexico. Frost said he expects this first phase of testing to conclude early next year, with later-stage trials in the second half of 2012. The company, whose shares trade on Nasdaq under the symbol HALO, also is developing biological medicines that reduce swelling after plastic surgery and reduce wrinkles, among other things. The drug will most likely be launched outside of the U.S., Frost said.

Wrinkles are also in the crosshairs at SkinMedica, a local venture-backed skin care company that’s rooted in science. A glance at the management team and board of directors reveals a major connection to the local life sciences scene, starting with Chairman David F. Hale, a man who’s often referred to as the founding father of San Diego’s biotech cluster.

“The thing about wrinkles is that you see them every day when you look in the mirror,” Schwarz said. “You can’t cover them up with a towel or a shirt. They’re so visible to the world that you tend to view them as the first sign of aging.”

SkinMedica’s products harness the body’s natural regenerative qualities, said Rahul Mehta, executive director of research and development for the 155-person company. The flagship product, TNS Essential Serum, sells for $260 per ounce. Over the course of several months, the serum uses human growth factors and other ingredients to minimize wrinkles and lines. “It’s a multibillion dollar market,” Schwarz said. In September, the company announced a new product called Biometa Essential Serum, which is made specifically for sale in parts of Europe that don’t allow human-derived ingredients in beauty products, Schwarz said.

A 2011 report by research consultancy Kline & Co. Inc., based in Little Falls, N.J., named SkinMedica the fastest-growing U.S. skin care company for the fifth year in a row, citing double-digit sales gains in 2010. Kline said that the domestic skin care treatment industry as a whole saw growth of 2.7 percent last year. The study was published in Women’s Wear Daily.

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