Don't be surprised if in a few years television commercials for skin cream start touting that they are "now formulated with methylene blue." That's because research out of the University of Maryland (UMD) has shown that the common antioxidant can reverse the effects of aging on our skin.
First synthesized in 1876, methylene blue (also called methylthioninium chloride) has historically been used as a dye as well as a means of treating urinary tract infections and cases of cyanide poisoning. It's also shown promise in fighting Alzheimer's disease, and is generally regarded as a valuable antioxidant – a chemical that neutralizes free radicals in our bodies.
In 2015, the UMD team showed that methylene blue was able to almost completely repair skin cells that were damaged by a condition known as progeria, a disease in which certain components of aging are accelerated in the body. Now, researchers there have done work that shows that methylene blue could also be effective in helping healthy individuals attain younger skin.
The UMD scientists first applied a methylene blue solution to skin cells from healthy middle-aged donors. They found that the chemical was able to lower the rate of cell death, up the rate of cell division and reduce the number damaging molecules known as reactive oxygen species in the cells over the course of four weeks.
Methylene blue was then tested on skin cells from donors who were older than 80 years old. Again they found that the compound had beneficial effects – even to the point of reducing the expression of two genes often used to mark cellular aging: senescence-associated beta-galactosidase and p16.
Finally, the researchers tested methylene blue on artificial skin they had created, which reacts like regular skin, has all of its normal layers but is lacking in sweat glands and hair follicles.
"This system allowed us to test a range of aging symptoms that we can't replicate in cultured cells alone," said Kan Cao, senior author on the study and an associate professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at UMD. "Most surprisingly, we saw that model skin treated with methylene blue retained more water and increased in thickness – both of which are features typical of younger skin."
The artificial skin also allowed Cao and his team to try out different formulations of skin creams containing various concentrations of methylene blue. They found that the chemical caused little to no irritation even when high doses were included.
Cao says they are now investigating the commercial viability of both the cosmetics and the artificial skin.
"We have already begun formulating cosmetics that contain methylene blue. Now we are looking to translate this into marketable products," Cao said. "We are also very excited to develop the three-dimensional skin model system. Perhaps down the road we can customize the system with bioprinting, such that we might be able to use a patient's own cells to provide a tailor-made testing platform specific to their needs."
The team's work appears in the journal Scientific Reports.