Skin Deep Secret

It’s not only a rite of passage for the teenage face, but a nuisance that can recur long after adolescence. From embarrassing to painful, acne is nothing new, and up to now neither are its treatments. But a Rady School of Management grad is bringing UC San Diego technology to the fight.

Dermala, a new startup led by Lada Rasochova, MBA ’08, is not your average consumer dermatology company. Dermala is unique in that it advances treatments for skin conditions using the human microbiome—the collection of all microbes that live on and in our bodies. And while there are plenty of microbes to reckon with on the skin’s surface, the gut is the microbial ground zero, and it may be the key to a clear complexion.

“The microbiome is very important for our health. When our body’s microbiome gets disrupted it typically results in a disease, including skin diseases,” Rasochova says. “When the microbiome is brought back into balance, health can be restored.”

This means a whole new approach for conditions like acne, eczema, psoriasis and other skin diseases that affect more than 85 million Americans and almost a billion people globally. Currently Dermala’s focus is acne, with microbiome-based products like topical treatments that inhibit acne-causing bacteria and promote those beneficial to skin, and oral probiotics that work in the gut to create an overall environment less conducive to breakouts.

The company sees even more progress on the horizon by bringing personalized data to the mix—in addition to topical and oral treatments, it plans to provide customers with microbiome analysis and a mobile app to track their treatment progress. By analyzing an individual’s unique skin and gut microbiome, Dermala will use machine learning to optimize the treatments and fit the specific needs of individual customers.

Petri plate with colonies of Propionibacterium acnes that has been linked to the skin condition of acne. Photo by Dermala
Petri plate with colonies of Propionibacterium acnes that has been linked to the skin condition of acne. Photo by Dermala

“Most consumer dermatology products are developed for an average customer,” says Rasochova. “But by using data analytics, we can optimize the treatment regimen and fine-tune the outcomes.”

Dermala is also a resident of JLABS, the Johnson & Johnson Innovation incubator that supports healthcare startups. Johnson & Johnson and Dermala announced a partnership in 2018 to collaborate on technology development. Rasochova credits her team for being able to expand the technology while still serving as the executive director of the California Institute for Innovation and Development at Rady School.

Ultimately Dermala aims to tackle other skin issues, like eczema, and eventually produce anti-aging products based on achieving microbiome balance. But for now the target is acne, and though it may be a foe for young and old alike, it’s one that will soon get a firm punch in the gut.