heparan sulfate molecular structure

 The “master molecule for age management” is a phrase that would get my attention. Even more so when the molecule is something that I hadn’t heard of before, heparan sulfate. It is apparently so vital to anti-aging that it is the star ingredient for a brand called Senté and their Neck Firming Cream that I am testing. I had to find out more about heparan sulfate and whether it really does deserve to be “master” of the anti-aging universe.

So what exactly is heparan sulfate?

It is a proteoglycan, which is a kind of protein with a chain of glycosaminoglycans attached. This is good to know because glycosaminoglycans are something that I have come across and have learned to appreciate for their role in maintaining and supporting collagen and elastin and the skin’s ‘bounce’. There are several types of glycosaminoglycans, the more familiar hyaluronic acid is one of them. Heparan sulfate is the glycosaminoglycan that is vital to cellular division and cellular regulation.

In our bodies heparan sulfate is in “close proximity to the cell surface or extracellular matrix proteins” (source). Due to the ubiquity of heparan sulfates, the large amount of proteins they sequester and their fine-tuning effect on growth factors, heparan sulfate is involved in just about everything a cell does: proliferation, migration, differentiation and cell-to-cell interaction (source).

Heparan sulfate and the skin

Once you start digging in to heparan sulfate, it becomes clear that it plays a major role in the skin. Fibroblast growth factors and their receptors are dependent on binding to heparan sulfate, and this interaction is an absolute requirement for full signaling In particular, heparan sulfate has a thing about fibroblast growth factors (FGFs). FYI, a fibroblast is a type of cell that is responsible for making the extracellular matrix and collagen.

Heparin sulfate is involved in all the things that go into wound repair (source).

Heparan sulfate and aging

Scientists have noticed that heparan sulfate declines with age. What doesn’t? Anyway, there is speculation that it is implicated in the aging process and in the last few years it has been seen as a potential target for helping to fight skin aging. Meanwhile, scientists at skincare giant Sheseido have made a link between the decline heparan sulfate and age spots (source).

Where have you been all my life?

The thing about heparan sulfate chains is that they are vastly structurally diverse. Therefore, there is a great deal of variability in the way HS chains are synthesized. Which is a bit of a challenge for a humble cream maker and so I wondered how Senté managed to make heparan sulfate its signature ingredient. Senté’s breakthrough (it claims a “world’s first”), working with a Swiss lab, was to come up with a low molecular weight version that is quickly absorbed into the skin.

Hmm, but is there any evidence that topical application will work?

Hard research is sparse, but there is some. There is evidence that heparan sulfate, applied in a cream, will penetrate the dermis and have anti-aging effects. I found a recent (but small) study in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology that over eight weeks showed improvement in skin hydration, skin firmness, skin elasticity, skin barrier function and global fine lines and wrinkles. 

Studies have shown that topical heparan sulfate can help with scarless injury repair by interacting with the wound on numerous levels, even absorbing water and preventing tissue compression.