Does the pharmaceutical industry's future lie at the boundary between drugs and cosmetics? Or is the prospect of effective 'cosmeceuticals' a beauty myth? Writing in the 29 August issue of 'Nature' Helen Pearson looks into the matter.
According to Pearson, over the past decade a handful of drugs have found uses in flattening wrinkles, preventing baldness or shedding unwanted hair. Given the demand from a society obsessed by beauty, one might expect pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies to be falling over themselves to create a new generation of vanity drugs - or 'cosmeceuticals', she writes.
But the pharma giants are keen on the big bucks, made through the treatment of disease. Although US cosmeceutical sales reached $3.4 billion in 2002, according to market research company Freedonia Group, this is only a tiny fraction of the $185.2 billion US pharmaceutical market. Even if sales of cosmeceuticals double over the next decade, as the Freedonia Group expects, it will probably not change the views of the big drug firms.
Pearson continues that the 'pseudo-scientific' reputation of cosmetics, fear of liability should the treatment go wrong, as well as technical obstacles, are also dissuading drug companies from entering the field. 'But some experts predict that the firms' attitudes could change as their parched product pipelines make them increasingly desperate for commercial success,' she writes. And if one company hits upon a genuine cosmeceutical blockbuster industry executives might soon be fighting to join the fray.
According to the article, gauging pharmaceutical companies' current interest in cosmeceuticals is difficult, because most are tight-lipped about their business strategy and research programmes.
Drug giant Pfizer admits that it is actively researching new prescription compounds for cosmetic purposes. Last year, it absorbed a company called Anaderm, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which it had bankrolled since 1996. Anaderm is working on drugs to tackle five common cosmetic concerns: age spots, oily skin, hair loss, excess hair and sun damage.
In the cosmetics industry, only the largest companies can afford the expensive research and clinical trials required to bring a new drug onto the prescription market.
Cosmetics giant L'Oréal, for example, teamed up with the food and drinks conglomerate Nestlé in 1981 to create a dermatology-research company called Galderma, headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland. Pearson reports that the company is seeking new drugs to pep up ageing skin or tackle balding, says its vice-president for corporate marketing and business development, Gabriel Villada.
But many cosmetics firms remain wary about products that have biological activity. Nevertheless, some are exploiting the blurry definition of cosmeceuticals to bring drug-like products to market without attracting the attention of drug regulators. In the United States, if a company finds a new molecule, puts it in a pot and claims that it alters the structure and function of the skin, it must undergo years of expensive clinical trials. But if the marketing claims fudge around the cream's biological activity, it can hurdle straight into the stores. Hence the carefully worded scientific claims featured in many cosmetics adverts.