Nanoneedle technique shines light on ageing process and skin barrier function


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Electron microscopy image of a nanoneedle grown on an AFM tip
Electron microscopy image of a nanoneedle grown on an AFM tip

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Researchers at the University of Bath have developed a new technique to study the properties of skin which could help the development of topical skin creams and treatments and improve understanding of the skin ageing process.

Professor Richard Guy, who pioneered the research with Dr Sergey Gordeev and PhD graduate James Beard, explains that a deeper understanding of skin barrier function may lead to the development of new therapeutic or cosmetic products to restore or reinforce the skin.

“This would benefit, for example, individuals with dry or eczema-prone skin and, perhaps, the ever-increasing ageing population whose skin becomes progressively fragile over time.”

Pioneering technique

The technology uses a ‘nanoneedle’ in conjunction with atomic force microscopy (AFM), which is a high-resolution type of scanning probe microscopy, to study the structure of the stratum corneum.

“AFM enables us to image samples by tapping them with a sharp probe,”​ says Dr Sergey Gordeev, from the University’s Department of Physics. “But up until now we’ve only been able to use this technique to study the surface properties of materials.”

“By constructing a nanoneedle at the tip of an AFM probe we’ve extended our imaging capabilities into the third dimension. We strongly believe that this new technique will find many interesting applications in biology, nano medicine and material science.”

Skin scientists have often wondered how the outer layer of the epidermis forms that barrier to keep water in and microbes out, whilst maintain its strength and elasticity, and the research team believes this will shine new light on the topic.

Shine the light

The study, published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology​, demonstrates the nanoneedle’s ability to probe corneocytes, the predominant cell type in the epidermis of the skin.

Until this new research from Bath, it was only possible to examine the surface of the corneocyte with AFM. Now, with the nanoneedle technology, researchers can better explore the cell structure deep below the surface.

The nanoneedle enables a mechanical scan of the skin cell to be performed, offering the potential to detect structural and biomechanical changes caused, for example, by environmental factors, ageing or skin disease.

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