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Honey and Snails

By: Steve Herman
Posted: October 5, 2009, from the October 2009 issue of GCI Magazine.

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In the 1990s, computers and a technique by which large numbers of structurally distinct molecules may be synthesized in a time and submitted for pharmacological assay,1 known as combinatorial chemistry, became the chief mode of drug discovery, with results that fell short of expectations. Generally, natural products have higher molecular weights, incorporate fewer nitrogen, halogen or sulfur atoms but more oxygen atoms, and are sterically more complex than molecules designed by combinatorial methods. Nevertheless, since purity and intellectual property issues are clearer with new chemicals, natural product discovery was de-emphasized in favor of the new methods.

Beauty Ingredients Under Our Noses: The Honey Example

Honey alone or in combination with sugar is one of the traditional wound-healing cures with rich therapeutic histories and strong supportive evidence. And the beauty industry should take note. Materials useful in healing wounds typically have valuable skin treatment potential, and extensive evidence and theoretical underpinning exist for them. Honey has potent antibacterial properties, but works differently from antibiotics that attack bacterial cell walls or inhibit intracellular metabolic pathways. Honey draws moisture out of the environment and, thus, dehydrates bacteria. This is called the osmotic effect. Its sugar content is also high enough to hinder the growth of microbes. In 1919, it was discovered that the antibacterial properties of honey were increased when diluted. The explanation for this unexpected property came from the finding that honey contains an enzyme that produces hydrogen peroxide when diluted.

Looking a Little Deeper

Beyond the folkloric remedies that you are already familiar with, nature offers a bounty of therapeutic source materials—the trick for finding additional applications is often knowing where to look. Chimps in Tanzania eat the almost inedible leaves of the sunflower Aspila when they have intestinal ailments. Scientists studying this behavior found thiarubrine-A in the oil, which kills many types of bacteria, fungi and parasitic worms. Curiously, the people of Tanzania do the same thing, probably from watching the chimps. There is even an official name for learning therapeutic processes from animals: zoopharmacognosy—from the Greek zoo, meaning “animal;” pharma, “drug;” and gnosy, “knowing”—and coined by biochemist Eloy Rodriguez of Cornell University. Nigerians go to a salt lick near Lake Chad to get kanwa, an earth used as a nutritional supplement—as have done the indigenous animals for eons.2 Kanwa is also known as calcium montmorillonite, and contains more than 60 trace minerals that stimulate cellular growth and help reverse the aging process. It can be found in commercial skin creams, lip balm, masks, soaps, shampoos and conditioners.

And one of the latest innovations in naturally derived therapy is snail slime—specifically, material carefully extracted from stressed Helix aspersa Müller, a common land snail. Snail slime fits the three rules of cosmetic marketing: Find an exotic, preferably natural, ingredient; provide a creation myth often involving an accidental discovery; and create the official seal of credibility with a scientific report. Snail slime is surely exotic and natural. The discovery was accidentally made when Chilean snail farmers supplying the French gourmet market noticed softer skin and rapid healing of minor cuts and scars after handling the snails. For the sake of science, there is a review paper3 and a patent application.4 And then come the cosmetic applications, with Elicina Cream as a prominent example. Labcconte’s effort to bring a line based on snail concentrate to the North American market is also currently underway. The process of gathering the snail material for these products involves harvesting and gently warming the exuded material, and the process is disclosed in a patent application: “the annelids … are put into an aluminum, steel or iron pot exposed to low heat, the temperature of which varies between 40°–70°C, for a period between 1 and 10 minutes.” The extract is high in monosaturated and polysaturated oils. Allantoin, estastin and antibiotic peptides are also present. Also present in the resultant slime and of interest to the beauty industry, glycoconjugates are a biological complex of proteins and assorted other molecules. This mixture of enzymes, co-enzymes, peptides and other molecules allegedly improves cellular communication and eliminates scar tissue formation in the skin.

Snail slime also provides a source of metal peptides, where you enter the realm of biochemist Loren Pickart. He initially synthesized the material from soy protein and discovered its skin renewal properties. But we can, fortunately, now get our copper peptides from snail goop.