Gadusol: Safer Sunscreen for Fish & Humans

Every summer, ocean lovers face the sunscreen dilemma. Fully protective sunscreen helps prevent sunburn and skin cancer, yet some popular sunscreen ingredients may harm marine life and the environment. Gadusol Laboratories is a Corvallis-based startup that hopes to offer a nature-inspired solution to the sunscreen dilemma by developing new sun protection alternatives based on a naturally occurring compound, called gadusol, found in marine organisms which provides UVB protection to the organisms. 

This OSU spin-off originated from Dr. Taifo Mahmud’s research to determine how this UVB-protective compound is made in nature. In 2017, Dr. Mahmud and collaborator Dr. Alan Baklinsky formed a company applying their research to develop a commercially viable and non-toxic alternative to current sunscreen ingredients that may harm marine life and possibly human health.

“Why not look to nature and try to replicate what nature is already doing?” said Gadusol Laboratories co-founder and managing director Katie Pettinger. “Americans don’t really have a lot of options for sun protection.”

Americans have relatively fewer choices for sun protection compared with many other countries. This is, in part, because the FDA regulates sunscreens as drugs, while European countries regulate sun protection as cosmetics. The FDA regulations cover both safety and effectiveness in preventing UVB damage. Before going into the problem that Gadusol Laboratories aims to solve, it helps to understand a couple basic concepts about sun protection.

Sunscreen 101
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends sunscreens that offer broad spectrum protection protecting from both UVA and UVB light. Not all FDA-approved sunscreen ingredients are broad spectrum, but products formulated to offer broad spectrum protection will designate it on the label. 

In addition to spectrum, the AAD also suggests using a sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) above 30. The SPH refers to the sunscreens ability to protect against the UVB which is responsible for causing sunburns. It is possible to use a sunscreen with a high SPF that protects you from burning but is not broad spectrum. The AAD recommends a sunscreen that also protects from UVA damage since both types of UV light contribute to the development of skin cancer and premature aging. 

The AAD also recommends that people wear sunscreen rated at SP 30 or higher throughout the year since some UV penetrates clouds. 

The Problem with Current Sunscreen Ingredients
Some sunscreen ingredients seem to harm marine life, including coral reefs. In areas that attract tourists who enjoy swimming or snorkeling, the reefs show more signs of damage. To protect marine life like coral reefs, a few popular tourist destinations started banning certain sunscreen ingredients including oxybenzone and octinoxate. Hawaii was the first state to pass a bill banning these chemical ingredients starting January 1, 2021. The Florida Keys also passed their own ban starting in 2021.

According to 2008 research published in “Environmental Health Perspectives,” sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate damage coral reefs by bleaching them and may make them vulnerable to infection. These issues are not currently associated with mineral sunblocks containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide providing the particles are large enough not to be ingested by coral. 

Although multiple studies document damage to coral reefs in popular tourist destinations, the damage to marine life isn’t necessarily limited to coral reefs or specific regions. Further research must be done to better understand the environmental impact of sunscreen ingredients. 

In addition to the risk of danger to marine life, recent studies uncover reasons to be concerned about chemical sunscreens impact on human health. The Journal of the American Medical Association published results from a clinical trial in their May 2019 issue indicating that some chemical sunscreen ingredients are absorbed into the bloodstream. The researchers recommend further research to determine what consequences this may have to human health. Some of the four ingredients tested are the same as those associated with damage to coral.

“The study provides important evidence that widely used sunscreen ingredients don’t just stay on the skin surface where they’re applied but get absorbed and enter systemic circulation.”  Baklinsky explained, “Their potential for causing adverse health effects needs to be re-evaluated.”

Since gadusol offers fish and other marine life natural sun protection, the team at Gadusol Laboratories hopes they can help with a solution. They are looking into developing products that either act as a stand-alone sun protection alternative or as an enhancer to existing products.

How Existing Sunscreen Ingredients Work
As mentioned, the FDA regulates sunscreens based on standards of safety and effectiveness. Currently, Americans have access to two categories of sunscreen ingredients that the AAD describes as either physical or chemical sunscreens. 

Chemical sunscreens like oxybenzone and octinoxate, are applied to the skin and absorb UV radiation. These sunscreens are popular with consumers due to their transparency, but they may harm marine life and be associated with other environmental and human health concerns. 

The second option, physical sunscreens and mineral sunscreens including zinc oxide and titanium oxide. They sit on top of the skin and reflect the UV light away. While these sunblocks are effective, they also cast a white sheen that some consumers find unattractive. 

“Consumers want sunscreen products that are easy to apply and don’t feel like there’s a coating on their skin. Sunscreens formulated with chemical UV filters offer these benefits, but unfortunately their safety for human use and the environment is being called into question,” explained Pettinger. 

“Sunscreens formulated with the mineral UV filters zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are considered much safer, but are often thick, pasty, and white, and don’t have the same skin feel as their chemical-based counterparts.” 

The shortcomings of existing sunscreen ingredients leave an opening in the market for sun protection options that are effective, nontoxic, and feel pleasant on the skin.

“Major skin care product manufacturers are hunting for new compounds that are safe and natural,” said Bakalinsky who is also a co-founder of Gadusol Laboratories and their Director of Research. “We don’t have enough safe sunscreen ingredients available.” 

The Science Behind Gadusol Laboratories
Scientists originally believed marine animals acquired gadusol solely through diet. In 2015 Mahmud and Bakalinsky published a study describing for the first time how certain species also produce their own gadusol. People who eat seafood ingest gadusol with no known harmful effects. 

Since this compound appears to provide natural sun protection to marine animals, the researchers decided to investigate whether they can use it to develop a sunscreen ingredient that is better for both the environment and for human health. According to Pettinger, gadusol is also a potent antioxidant in addition to offering UVB protection. 

Gadusol Laboratories is in the process of testing their compound to ensure it is effective and safe for human use and meets FDA standards. They are also investigating the best path forward to create a commercial product to sell to skin care manufacturers. Some options include whether gadusol may serve as an effective stand-alone sunscreen or as a natural antioxidant SPF booster to improve some of the more environmentally friendly mineral sunscreens.

Pettinger and Bakalinsky explained that developing any new sunscreen requires extensive testing that may take years before the product is ready for the market. In the meantime, Gadusol Laboratories also needs to improve on their methods for manufacturing the compound. Bakalinsky explained that harvesting large quantities from fish is neither sustainable nor eco-friendly.  They developed a yeast-based fermentation method to manufacture gadusol by introducing it into yeast genes found in fish eggs. Bakalinsky, a former professor of Food Science and Technology at OSU, published over 45 peer-reviewed papers on fermentation. He loosely compared their yeast-based fermentation method to the process of brewing beer. 

From Research to Business
As academic scientists, co-founders Mahmud and Bakalinsky face new challenges according to Bakalinsky. When they formed Gadusol Laboratories, they joined forces with Pettinger who had a decade of experience helping start-up companies with technology commercialization. Oregon State University business resources like VertueLab and OSU Advantage Accelerator provided additional assistance and resources.

Bakalinsky recently retired from his position with OSU’s Food Science and Technology department and is focused on Gadusol Laboratories.

“Here is something interesting and has real commercial potential,” said Bakalinsky. “It’s the right combination of interest, opportunity, chance, and circumstances. Starting Gadusol Laboratories felt like an adventure.”

By Samantha Sied