Reimagining “Clean”—Our Collaboration with Dr. Cezmi Akdis and SIAF
We’re over the cosmos to announce our latest initiative, in collaboration with Dr. Cezmi Akdis and the Swiss Institute of Allergy and Asthma Research (SIAF), combining microbiome science and immunology to develop non-toxic, non-inflammatory, microbiome-safe home and personal care products.
In the past 70 years, 350,000 new chemicals have been introduced into our everyday lives.1 Many of these are found in the personal care and cleaning products we interact with daily. While dosages and exposure levels do have some guidance around safety, new models to evaluate the impact on our health provoke the question: “What is actually clean?”
Of course, this isn’t a new conversation. “Clean” and “non-toxic” have become buzzwords on product labels. But until this point, we’ve lacked the technology and methods to define toxicity through the lens of the microbiome and epithelial immunology—and to the detriment of our collective health.
In collaboration with the globally renowned immunologist and physician-scientist Cezmi A. Akdis, MD, and SIAF, we’ve launched a novel immunology platform to evolve our understanding of toxicity and establish a new standard for the products we use every day. By combining host and microbial immunology, our platform will identify compounds that protect the microbiome and restore our epithelial barriers, powering the next generation of non-toxic, non-inflammatory, microbiome and barrier-safe personal care and home products.
The years following the Industrial Revolution brought the proliferation of processed foods, cigarette smoke, particulate matter, diesel exhaust, and ozone, as well as the introduction of products like cosmetics, laundry and dishwasher detergents, household cleaning products, and our general obsession with being “clean”. Many of the compounds found in everyday consumer products—including preservatives, emulsifiers, nanoparticles, and microplastics—are known to affect our epithelial barriers (the protective cellular layers lining the skin, respiratory tract, and gut).
At the same time, we have seen a steep increase in allergic, autoimmune, and other chronic conditions (think inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and even chronic depression), which now affect more than one billion people worldwide. Dr. Akdis’s Epithelial Barrier Theory posits that modern society’s dependence on these barrier-damaging agents underlies the epidemic-level rise in these conditions, observed over recent decades in most industrialized countries and continuously rising in developing countries.2
Put another way: we are experiencing the climate change of our insides.
Illustration of a damaged epithelial barrier. Once barriers are disrupted, substances and microbes can pass into tissues where they don’t belong and into the bloodstream.
This collaboration builds on nearly three decades of immunology research and over 520 peer-reviewed publications out of Dr. Akdis’s lab at the University of Zurich, which has driven substantial progress in understanding mechanisms of immune regulation in allergy, asthma, autoimmune disease, and other chronic conditions.
Combining our microbiome science expertise with the power of SIAF’s proprietary immunology platform, EDAPS-I, we are evaluating the toxicity and pro-inflammatory impact of more than 200 commonly-used surfactants, emulsifiers, and preservatives on the barriers of the skin, gut, respiratory tract, and mucosas of the vagina and mouth. Our first phase of work is focused on the development of microbiome and barrier-safe surfactants for skin (face, body, scalp, infant) and the home, and we plan to continue this research to support a multi-category product pipeline.
From the Seed-Verse:
Dr. Cezmi Akdis
Immunologist, Physician-Scientist, Director of the Swiss Institute for Allergy and Asthma Research (SIAF), University of Zurich, Seed Health Scientific Board
What inspired you to explore this field, and what led you to your Epithelial Barrier Theory?
Our research on epithelial barriers began in the early 2000s, when we first demonstrated that eczema in patients with atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis develops through the interaction of immune system cells (T cells) and the main cellular component of the skin, keratinocytes. We then identified other immunologic mechanisms in asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis, giving the first hint that epithelial barriers are damaged in the chronic inflammatory diseases of skin and mucosas. The same epithelial barrier damage and related mechanisms were valid in metabolic and autoimmune diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune hepatitis, colitis, celiac, and multiple sclerosis. After that, we began to identify environmental substances that damage these barriers and realized this damage contributes to the development of several diseases mediated by local inflammation in the tissues and reduced microbial biodiversity. This research led us to define the Epithelial Barrier Hypothesis, which is now accepted as a Theory.
What do you find powerful about this collaboration? In other words, why combine microbiome science with your work in immunology and epithelial cell biology?
Our continuing research has demonstrated that in the framework of allergic, autoimmune, and chronic conditions, the main events are taking place within the frame of a triangle—the interaction between microbes, epithelial cells, and the immune system—showing that similar diseases can develop even if only one “side” is sick. With this collaboration, we are bringing together like-minded scientists who understand these mechanisms and want to develop interventions to remediate this damage. With Seed Health’s expertise in microbiome science, product development and commercialization, and SIAF’s novel human immunology and epithelial cell platforms, we have a unique opportunity to translate nearly three decades of research to protect and restore these critical barriers and the microbiome.
How worried should someone be that they have already damaged their tissue, barriers, and microbiome? How do you know when these barriers are disrupted?
If an individual is dealing with an allergic, autoimmune, or other chronic condition like those noted above, barrier disruption is involved. But all of us live in modern society, and therefore we can all be confident that our barriers have been disrupted to some degree. Part of our collaboration with Seed is focused on developing clear biomarkers to demonstrate this barrier disruption.
How can one support a healthy epithelial barrier? Is there a way to reverse the damage done by this chemical exposure?
As of now, the best way to support your epithelial barriers is to educate yourself about the impact of these damaging compounds and avoid products containing them. When we continue to use these same substances, we open ourselves up to this damage to our barriers and microbiome. In our collaboration with Seed, we’re identifying compounds and developing formulations that protect the microbiome and restore barriers impacted by environmental disruptors.
You recently published a study on the impact of commercial dishwashers on gut toxicity—was there anything that you found particularly shocking or exciting from that study?
At a high level, our EDAPS-I platform helped to reveal that commercial dishwashing detergents destroy the protective layer in the gut. But we were particularly shocked to see that alcohol ethoxylates, an ingredient class used in commercial rinse aids, remains as residue on washed and ready-to-use dishware following the commercial rinse cycle, risking unconscious consumption and internal exposure in public dining settings. Analysis showed that even a small amount of this compound, as in the residue, induces cell death and inflammation that result in epithelial barrier defects.
What’s next? What does the future look like?
Our research will set a new standard for the products we use every day, to power the next generation of personal care and household products. By identifying compounds and formulations that may protect or restore these critical barriers and the microbiome, we can reimagine the evolution of everyday products for ourselves, our families, and our environment. Looking forward, the insights from this joint research may empower the discovery of new biomarkers for defective gut, skin, and lung epithelial barriers, marking a new frontier in disease prediction, preventive action, treatment, and patient care.
- Wang, Z.; Walker, G. W.; Muir, D. C. G.; Nagatani-Yoshida, K. Toward a Global Understanding of Chemical Pollution: A First Comprehensive Analysis of National and Regional Chemical Inventories. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2020, 54 (5), 2575– 2584, DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.9b06379
- Akdis C. A. (2021). Does the epithelial barrier hypothesis explain the increase in allergy, autoimmunity and other chronic conditions?. Nature reviews. Immunology, 21(11), 739–751. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41577-021-00538-7