Linking skin ageing research with industry: a trainee's story
Our NIHR Newcastle BRC trainees are offered a range of career development opportunities to enhance their prospects beyond their PhD study with us. Roisin Stout, a trainee working across our Skin and Oral Disease and Neuromuscular Disease themes has recently been accepted onto a well-respected market-discovery programme for early career researchers, and she tells us what this opportunity will mean for her PhD project, her future, and patient care in her area.
Please summarise your current research activities
I am investigating the role of mitochondrial dysfunction in skin ageing, specifically focussing on stress from sunlight which is a major cause of skin ageing. At the start I was focused on the differences between small daily doses and an equivalent large dose of solar light, to determine the differences in cell stress and DNA damage.
Alongside this we have been undergoing a study involving patients with genetic mitochondrial dysfunction (Primary mitochondrial disease). This involves taking images using a special light to detect UV spots, redness and pigmentation unseen to the naked eye, along a skin swab to detect mitochondrial DNA damage in the skin and a small blood sample to look for oxidative stress. Overall, we hypothesise that patients with genetic mitochondrial dysfunction are predisposed to stress in their skin from solar light and therefore may exhibit premature skin ageing. The patient study was unfortunately paused due to COVID, so I hope to return to this after my ICURe programme.
Please tell us about this new opportunity that you’ll be taking on
The ICURe (Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research) is a four-month market discovery programme that funds early career researchers to meet with potential customers of their innovation, and find out what the current need is for their research in a commercial capacity. This is funded by Innovate UK. My supervisor, Professor Mark Birch-Machin, has been developing a skin swab to detect mitochondrial DNA damage in the skin for years; the same swab I use in my patient study. Throughout my PhD I have helped to optimise this technique, and this is the test we are exploring through the ICURe.
In the past, the ICURe was an opportunity to travel to different places to meet customers in person, but in the current climate most of this will be done from my house! It will involve online trade shows, social media interactions, and directly contacting potential customers.
What does this opportunity mean for you in the future?
The technology we are exploring in the ICURe is the same test I use to determine mitochondrial DNA damage in the skin during my patient study, and as an early career researcher, understanding how my research fits in with the commercial world is invaluable and it helps to see the ‘big picture’ of research rather than my narrow research niche. Going forward in my career, this experience will open new doors if I decide to leave lab-based work and want a more end-stage research position.
What are the main benefits of this work to patients and the public?
This test as an indicator of skin damage, we foresee it being used to track anti-ageing treatments and helping to determine how much skin damage the user is getting from their lifestyle. In the long run, this could help reduce the amount of money spent on skincare that is not working, instead, encouraging people to change their lifestyle to something more beneficial for their skin. Though the ICURe is all about market discovery, so this could all change!