UC Berkeley professor receives Healthy Longevity Catalyst Award for skin barrier research

Katrina Abuabara
Chosen out of nearly 600 innovators, UC Berkeley associate professor-in-residence of epidemiology Katrina Abuabara received $50,000 in seed funding to advance her team’s research on restoring the skin barrier, the outermost layer of skin, to reduce inflammatory biomarkers.

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With her innovative project on the role of the skin barrier in inflammation and aging, Katrina Abuabara, associate professor-in-residence of epidemiology at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, has been awarded the Healthy Longevity Catalyst Award.

Given by the National Academy of Medicine, or NAM, the Healthy Longevity Catalyst Awards are part of an international competition that fosters groundbreaking research to improve human health, according to the academy’s website. Chosen out of nearly 600 innovators, Abuabara received $50,000 in seed funding to advance her team’s research on restoring the skin barrier, the outermost layer of skin, to reduce inflammatory biomarkers.

Abuabara added that the Healthy Longevity Catalyst Award is a unique prize, the goal of which is to stimulate a body of work.

“The project is aimed to look at global trends that can help address the aging population in different ways,” Abuabara said. “If we can reduce the relative risk even by a little, it can make a difference on a population scale, and that’s what’s appealing about it.”

Many conditions of aging, including cardiovascular disease, dementia and fractures, involve inflammation in the body, according to Abuabara. While many people have conducted research concerning the source of inflammation, such as looking at fat cells, the skin has been largely ignored, Abuabara added.

Like all organs, the skin barrier’s functions can decline over time, and in the process, individuals’ immune systems become more exposed to toxins, antigens and microbes, according to Abuabara. This creates inflammatory cascades that may have an effect on a person’s health in the future.

Previous studies on mice, however, have shown that using simple emollients, which are preparations that soften the skin like Vaseline, can reduce the number of inflammatory biomarkers on the skin, according to Abuabara.

“Emollients are widely available; they’re cheap, they’re safe,” Abuabara said. “If we can make a small dent in the problem with just a jar of Vaseline, that would be pretty amazing. It would be so cost-efficient.”

Next year, there will be a second round of opportunities to apply for additional funding from NAM for a specific research project, according to Abuabara. Currently, her team is conducting pilot studies to expand and refine their ideas on the role of the skin barrier, hoping to receive this funding for clinical trials.

Abuabara said it is “exciting” that one of the emerging trends in medicine is to view things more holistically. Research in the field of aging, in particular, has been more interdisciplinary. 

“In medicine, traditionally we do a lot of work in our own specialties, but the skin has a world, too, and I think it’s exciting to be recognized in a competition like this,” Abuabara said. “It enables us to think across boundaries and hopefully think of better interventions for patients.”

Zoe Chen is a research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @zoe_chen820.