The doctor, the face-cream and the secret of eternal hype

Why has a respected NHS hospital been testing a `miracle' beauty aid in its research unit? Hester Lacey reports

A new discovery was unveiled in a blaze of publicity last week at the Royal Society of Medicine. It was presented to audiences of medical journalists and dermatologists by a doctor from the highly-regarded Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital Trust. What was the news to be shared with the world? Which medical breakthrough had been cracked? In fact, the product was a skin-cream - a beauty-aid.

Dr Stephen Young of the Tissue Viability Unit at Guy's (which normally concerns itself with the healing of wounds ) introduced his new ultra- sound technique for investigating skin structure. A dab of gel, the application of a sensor, and a perfect, high-resolution image of a cross-section of skin appears on-screen. The process is non-stressful, non-invasive, and instant. Dr Young announced that after three weeks of using Servital skin- cream, the machine had discovered that the epidermis (upper skin layer) increases in thickness by 26 per cent. Thinning skin is a feature of ageing - so this thickening effect could make users' skin look younger. Sensation!

Syence (pronounced "science") Skincare, the makers of the gunk in question, are jubilant at this publicity coup. This is the first time any skin-cream has ever been linked to such a well-known medical authority. Following favourable write-ups in the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the London Evening Standard, the company has been besieged by television, radio and newspapers. The phones, says Syence's Nicola Costain, have been ringing off the hook since the "medical launch" and she has been "inundated with brokers wanting to know where they can buy shares" (last Tuesday Syence's share price leapt by 50 per cent from 20p to 30p). Linking a skin-cream with the name of such a respected medical establishment as Guy's is a stroke of marketing genius.

Yet Dr Stephen Young insists that he has no interest in flogging skin- cream, and is not endorsing the product. He was surprised - but not displeased - by the level of publicity generated. The new machine has many uses - not least of which is pin-pointing the spread of skin cancers. "Guy's medical school has invested heavily in time and money to get the machine to this point," he says. "They are not in a position to do more. We would like to see a commercial partner come in and invest. At the moment, the prototype would cost around pounds 20,000. With proper development, the price would come down to five or six thousand." Dr Young hopes that the publicity surrounding Servital will raise awareness of the machine's potential. "We've been developing this machine for three years and it is a potential life-saver. To try and interest people - to get the attention of the press - has been like banging our heads against a wall. But now the publicity is enormous - it's amazing and ironic that people are more interested in vanity than in health."

Clinical trials are a valuable source of revenue for many hospitals - although tests are normally for products that will be beneficial to patients in the long run, according to the Department of Health. "The hospital gets an overhead from all clinical trials that we carry out," says Dr Young. "No other services are affected, and all staff used on a trial are taken on specially and billed to the client."

Usually, permission must be sought for such trials from the local healthcare trust's ethics committee. In this instance, Dr Young did not feel he needed the committee's go-ahead as the product is not a medicine. Professor James Ritter, chair of the Guy's Hospital research ethics committee, was surprised to hear of the trials. "If a trial involves human subjects it should come before the committee. It sounds as though, on this occasion, the investigator maybe misinterpreted what he should have done. On the committee we would ask if an important question was being investigated; if the question was not important it would not be ethical to research it here."

He suggests that there could be potential for some scientific value from the trials. "A beauty product may have a genuinely important medical use at the end of the day, or the doctor might be learning about measuring skin thickness in a way that he can apply in different ways. But if the name of Guy's has become involved, then on a personal level I regret that."

Syence are milking their connection with Guy's for all it is worth, and the hype they have whipped up is masterly. But the trial does not prove that Servital does anything that other creams cannot. "It's quite possible that the effect we noted is not unique," says Dr Young. Quite likely, in fact, given that Servital does not contain anything unfamiliar. The cream, at pounds 51 for 30ml, is a prettily-packaged mixture of vitamins C, E and A-Retinol, phytantriol, hyaluronic acid, lysine PCA, gamma linolenic acid (aka evening primrose oil) and panthenol, any of which can be found in other products. And despite the "launches", it isn't even a new product; it has been on sale in Britain since 1992. The Mail, which gave it such an enthusiastic write-up last week ("the extravagant claims of cosmetic companies are not always the stuff of dreams") featured it back in 1994. The reader who tested it awarded it a mere five points out of ten. "I certainly didn't feel my skin cells were plumper," she commented. Syence are also distributing reams of pseudo-scientific spiel claiming "advanced anti-ageing ingredients". Dermatologists contend that simple moisturisers can be equally effective as ones packed with supposedly "advanced" components. "All moisturisers work in the same way, and an expensive one is not necessarily better than a cheap one," says Dr Robin Russell-Jones of the British Association of Dermatologists.

The hospital is now likely to find the cosmetic industry beating a path to its door. "A few other cosmetics companies have called up; I'm not sure if we will be taking them up or not," says Dr Young. If he does not, then this bog-standard face-cream will be in the enviable position of being able to claim, quite truthfully, that it is the only one to be tested in a NHS hospital trust. In the meantime, Servital is revelling in a level of publicity that money (apart from the initial investment in those trials, of course) could not buy. And doctors are reduced to testing skin cream to help drum up funds for life-saving new equipment.

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