IN THE SUMMER of 1980–81, a few months before I was born, one of Australia’s most successful public health campaigns of all time was launched. The legendary ‘Slip Slop Slap’ animated commercial featured Sid the Seagull singing a catchy jingle about how we can stop skin cancer by taking the following steps: ‘Slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat.’ From that moment on, the distinct fragrance of sunscreen became a feature of summer as much as the smell of chlorine and sea salt. Yet, for many Australians, peeling skin is still as much a part of summer as the greasy white lotion. Caught off guard and unprotected on a glaring day, on occasion I’ve come home red raw, skin overexposed to the harsh UV rays. Despite the wide adoption of sunscreen, Dorothea Mackellar’s description of Australia being ‘a sunburnt country’ still rings as true now as it ever did.
I didn’t realise just how much emphasis we placed on sunscreen until I first moved abroad. One summer, travelling in northern Syria, I stood on the street applying lotion from a large bottle of SPF30+. The beating sun in that part of the world was a shock after my working holiday in London. I slopped the sunscreen over my face and exposed arms without thinking anything of it while some men nearby watched. One came over with a grin on his face and gestured at the bottle. I squirted a blob onto his palm and said ‘the sun,’ pointing to the sky. I watched him awkwardly mimic the act of rubbing in sunscreen, presumably for the first time ever, and he laughed as he did it. I laughed as well, realising how comical the situation must have seemed to the locals.
Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Colonial migration is largely to blame for this: the average daily UV exposure in the UK and Europe is quite low, relative to Australia. The pale skin of migrants from the Northern Hemisphere was, and still is, ill equipped to deal with this – especially when compared to the melanin-enriched skin of Australia’s Indigenous people. In Australia, Indigenous people are under-represented compared to non-Indigenous when it comes to skin cancer deaths.
However, in recent years, it has become apparent that existing sunscreens are problematic from a conservation perspective. The protective layer Australians deploy to cope with the country’s sun could well be harming our most treasured underwater environment.
LOOKING DOWN FROM the International Space Station in 2015, NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren tweeted a series of wondrous images of Earth – a moving collection of both man-made and natural beauty. Among Lindgren’s photos is a living thing so large it really can be seen from outer space: the Great Barrier Reef.
At roughly 2,300 kilometres long, the reef is the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem, a trove of biodiversity formed from thousands of smaller reefs. In 1996, poet Judith Wright wrote, ‘Though its brilliant waters have been dulled and darkened here and there by unwise and greedy uses and human and industrial forms of pollution, the Great Barrier Reef is still the closest most people will come to Eden.’ But future generations are increasingly unlikely to have this chance: more than half of the reef’s coral has been lost over the past thirty years. As actor Leonardo DiCaprio described in June 2014, upon pledging $7.45 million from his private foundation towards conservation efforts: ‘What once had looked like an endless underwater utopia is now riddled with bleached coral reefs and massive dead zones.’
With mass bleaching now a regular occurrence, there’s hardly a week that passes where the news doesn’t foreshadow the impending death of the Great Barrier Reef. It almost seems inevitable, after decades of environmental hazards including (but not limited to) oil spills, ocean acidification and rising ocean temperatures – all of which are attributable to human activity.
Sunscreen is another culprit. In October 2015, a study led by Chris Downs, executive director of the Global Coral Repository in the US, made headlines around the world. Downs and his colleagues examined the effects of Benzophenone-3 – or oxybenzone – on the larval forms of a variety of corals in sites off the US Virgin Islands and Hawaii, and concluded that oxybenzone ‘poses a hazard to coral reef conservation and threatens the resiliency of coral reefs to climate change’. Oxybenzone is a white, solid organic compound that protects against the damaging effects of ultraviolet (UV) light – a key ingredient in many sunscreens and, as it turns out, toxic to corals, causing mutations to its cellular DNA.
Perversely, while many of our existing sunscreens are harming coral, a compound produced by coral itself holds the key to producing a new, effective sunscreen that won’t damage the reef.
IN 2013, THE Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation announced that, in partnership with skincare company Larissa Bright Australia, it had developed a sunscreen based on the mechanism of UV protection found in coral. One of the senior research scientists in the CSIRO’s biomedical manufacturing program, Mark York, stated:
The molecular make up of the coral’s natural sunscreen filter was quite complex, but what we have achieved is a compound which in just one molecule is resistant to both UVA and UVB radiation. The filters are clear in colour, virtually odourless and very stable, which means they can be easily incorporated into any cream emulsion.
The CSIRO team had worked on the coral sunscreen project since mid 2012 and had soon achieved a major innovation in broad-spectrum protection. It was widely hailed as being more sophisticated than anything else available.
York reiterates these key points when I call him at his office in Melbourne. He further explains that the process of designing the sunscreen was iterative: ‘We design a series of molecules that we hope will have certain properties, and then the team here makes them and tests them. Using this information, we are able to modify our hypotheses of how we can change the various parameters of the absorbers – for example solubility or strength – and use this information to inform the design and synthesis of the next round of absorbers.’
York and his colleagues at CSIRO are in an advanced development stage with the coral sunscreen, though a product fit for human use is still a few years away. I ask him whether this new sunscreen would have any of the same issues as oxybenzone. ‘We aren’t anticipating any of those endocrine disrupting issues with our compounds as they are a completely different structural class,’ he says. ‘Also our compounds are structurally related to the natural materials used by the corals themselves as sunscreens, so are much more likely to be tolerated.’
York explains that the line of inquiry driving his team’s research goes back to the 1960s, beginning with the work of a Japanese scientist, Kazuo Shibata: ‘Shibata observed that coral extracts from shallow-water coral had UV absorbing abilities and could thrive under the sun – and that a hefty dose of UV doesn’t seem to impair their functions at all.’ The question that struck me was, if the initial observation was made around fifty years ago, why has it taken so long for these new sunscreen compounds to be developed?
KAZUO SHIBATA WAS a native of Kyoto, and a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. In 1966, he was invited to join one of the earliest voyages of the Alpha Helix, a state-of-the-art, three-storey laboratory vessel designed by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego to study the biology of the oceans. During 1966–67, the ship’s program of study included the Great Barrier Reef as well as the Cook Islands and American Samoa. Shibata’s time on the ship led him to publish the paper ‘Pigments and a UV-absorbing substance in corals and a blue-green algae living in the Great Barrier Reef’ in 1969. His discovery of this UV-absorbing substance led to broader interest in the UV-filtering aspects of coral.
Around that time, exploitation of the reef was blatant, such as the proposal from Cairns cane grower Donald Forbes to mine limestone from the Great Barrier Reef. However, it was exactly such proposals that had a bolstering effect on the burgeoning environmental movement as well as on marine research programs.
In 1972, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) was established near Townsville in northern Queensland. Researchers there who built on Shibata’s initial findings included Walter Dunlap, Bruce Chalker, Wickramasinghe ‘Banda’ Bandaranayake and Graham Bird. Until the early 1990s, they worked on ‘microbial sunscreen’ or Mycosporine-like amino acid (MAAs) in the algae within coral, which is what actually produces the UV-absorbing filters.
On an Australian government website celebrating Australian innovations I found a reference to Dunlap and Chalker’s 1987 patent of synthetic sunscreen compounds imitating those in Pacific staghorn coral – and yet, as far as I could see, nothing further had come of it.
Libby Evans-Illidge, research director and manager of AIMS’s bioresources library, worked in the lab alongside both Dunlap and Chalker, in the field of chemical ecology. She explains that Dunlap, Chalker and Bandaranayake worked with shallow-water soft coral, soon discovering that a wide variety of MAAs were also found in the tissues of other organisms such as fish eyes, sea cucumber skin and scallop ovaries. Commercial partners at the time were interested in tweaking these compounds, and work began to develop synthesised forms, which wouldn’t require harvesting soft corals to attain adequate quantities for testing and production, and would be more suitable for commercial use. However, the commercial partnerships fell through, and AIMS subsequently changed its strategic direction away from biotechnology research towards a better understanding of how marine systems work. ‘Failure to commercialise is rarely due to the problems with the science – it’s the level of investment required and timeframe,’ says Evans-Illidge. ‘What you need is funding and a commercial partner who’s willing to accept the risk and take it forward. The sunscreen project was put on the shelf until someone else came along.’
In 2007, that someone else arrived.
IF THERE’S ONE person who’s been instrumental in realising the coral sunscreen project, it’s Larissa Bright. ‘I’ve been working on this project for ten years now, so for me it’s a labour of love,’ she says. ‘I have a passion for nature and this is why I love this project so much.’
Bright moved from New South Wales to northern Queensland when she was twenty-four, which is also when she first encountered the Great Barrier Reef. ‘You know how you see pictures of things and then you go and do it and you might be disappointed?’ she says, when I ask her about seeing the reef for the first time. ‘The reef is totally the opposite. It is so much more alive and so much more electric and so much more colourful.’
The unremitting sunshine and the humidity of Townsville’s subtropical climate soon ‘wreaked havoc’ on Bright’s skin, which inspired her to start making skincare products on her kitchen stove. (Prior to moving, she had worked for Estée Lauder.) She began with lavender and sweet orange after-sun moisturiser, which she made for friends and family before creating bigger batches to sell at local markets. Bright’s kitchen start-up eventually became her own company, Larissa Bright Australia. The products are all vegan, aside from a few containing beeswax, and the company has an ethos of using ‘natural’ ingredients. Because of this, there’s always been one component missing: sunscreen.
‘I haven’t been using any sunscreen in my products at all. This is the reason I went searching for sunscreen that was naturally derived,’ she explains. ‘My search led me to the Australian Institute of Marine Science, which is also in Townsville. When I spoke with the scientists there, what they told me just astounded me… That coral, over millions and millions of years, has been able to ensure its preservation and survival through creating a natural sunscreen.’
In 2007, Bright was licensed to access the AIMS intellectual property featuring more than twenty years of research and data pertaining to coral sunscreen. She then connected with the CSIRO, which is how Mark York and his team became involved. They received a Department of Industry grant designed to assist Australian research and development projects, and over several years were able to develop the four new molecules resistant to UV radiation. The eventual applications will not just be for sunscreen and cosmetics, but also sunglasses, plastics, UV film, paint and wood coatings.
‘We’re in the commercialisation phase and CSIRO are doing the scientific component,’ says Bright. In addition to managing her existing company, Bright is also the chief executive officer of Coral Sunscreen Pty Ltd, which has the slogan ‘Life Science Inspired by Nature’. In August 2016, the company was awarded $250,000 from the Queensland government’s Ignite Ideas Fund to bring their product to market. It’s estimated that Coral Sunscreen’s suite of products will enter a global market worth at least US$6 billion.
ON THE FACE of it, the coral sunscreen project is typical of the way we interact with nature: finding a way for it to serve us rather than the other way around. But Bright welcomes the attention her work is bringing to the Great Barrier Reef because she believes it ultimately contributes to conservation efforts. ‘It’s so important to learn from nature. This is why we need to really focus on protecting our environment,’ she says. ‘Observing it and learning from it.’
Over decades, such observations and deductions about nature are what have informed the current developments in coral sunscreen, an example of research that’s now termed biomimicry. Evans-Illidge sees this research as an example of a process that’s been occurring over millions of years: ‘Even if the sunscreen compound is completely synthesised, its genesis is in nature. Most of the documented MAAs occurring in higher organisms began as MAAs produced by a plant, which were then taken up by the other organism – for example, through diet – and transformed into something that best suited its needs.
‘This process is a bit like that too,’ she says. ‘Humans, as animals, are taking these wonderful compounds produced by nature and adapting them to a form that’s most useful for us.’
Sheila Ngoc Pham is a writer, producer and broadcaster. She has an Erasmus Mundus Master of Bioethics and a Master of Public Health from the University of Sydney. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation.