When we hold a capsule of biologically active collagen peptide in our hands, we hardly ever consider how many years and how much effort, research and experimentation it took to obtain it. And few people realise that the delicate preparation inside the capsule is practically the very same substance we are built of – the substance that we begin to lose at an increasingly faster rate as we get older.
Collagen makes up 25 per cent of the dry mass of our bodies and 75 per cent of the dry mass of our connective tissue. It would probably win the contest for the most important protein in the human body. It is a living frame that underpins the tissues of our various bodily organs. And it has to be intelligent, able to conform to the demands of organs as diverse as the skin, bones, ligaments, kidneys, blood vessels, heart, eyes and liver. Its structure is even more sophisticated than a DNA particle, which contains our genetic code.
Our bodies make collagen continuously. But every year, approximately 3kg of our collagen undergoes degradation while another 3kg is created. This incredible substance is made from 20 different amino acids into huge chains that consist of up of 1,000 amino acids each. It creates gigantic triple helixes – complicated spiral conformations each made of three amino acid chains (“polypeptides”), whose sophisticated structure resembles a Bach fugue.
However, at some point in our lives, we all run short of collagen. Its renewal process can be disturbed by factors such as disease, stress, UV rays and contact with synthetic chemical substances, and its production process starts to slow down as we grow older. After the age of 25, we start to lose collagen at a rate of 1.5 per cent a year, so by the age of 45, up to 30 per cent of our collagen will have been lost.
Considering the importance of collagen in our bodies, it is no wonder that scientists have been working on ways of obtaining it for use in medicines and cosmetic science for many years.
For centuries, scientists and beauty therapists have fought to improve the appearance of the visible effects of ageing upon the human complexion. They have searched for ways to reduce facial lines and wrinkles, improve skin elasticity, enhance hair thickness and gloss, and strengthen brittle fingernails to create a more youthful look.
In traditional Chinese medicine, for instance, a substance made from donkey hide gelatine called “ejiao” has been used since ancient times. Many stories have been told about famous people taking ejiao:
• Cao Zhi (192-232), the great writer, was unnaturally thin. But he was so invigorated by taking ejiao that he called it an elixir
• Yang Yuhuan was one of the four great beauties of ancient China. She lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and was said to have had the fairest skin of any woman. The poet Xiao Xingzao showed that every day, Yang ate soup made from ejiao, rice wine, walnuts, black sesame and crystal sugar
• Song Dynasty (960-1279) philosopher Zhu Xi once wrote to his mother, advising her to take ejiao frequently in order to extend her life
• Li Hongzhang, a minister at the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) court, travelled to Britain in 1896. He was 74 years old at the time, and throughout the long journey he took medicines he had brought from the imperial palace, including ejiao, and returned to China in good health.
In the modern era, cosmetic scientists all over the world use “collagen” and have been using it for many decades. This collagen is usually obtained from cows (“bovine collagen”), but does it really resemble the bioactive triple helixed collagen (“tropocollagen”) found in the human body?
Scientific efforts to obtain biologically active collagen were pioneered in the 1960s by Paul Börnstein. After many years, however, this outstanding researcher admitted that what he had obtained was not in fact biologically active collagen, but only partial and incomplete fragments of its triple helix, a lacklustre result stemming from irrecoverable degradation in his extraction process.
In spite of this, later attempts at obtaining collagen were still based on an extraction methodology. Yet these processes also turned out to be too aggressive, and damaged the delicate bonds of the triple helix. The result was yet more examples of collage particle degradation.
While degenerated “collagen” may turn out to be helpful in some cosmetic applications, it can by no means compete with intact biologically active collagen and its role in the human body and skin.
The beginnings of the breakthrough in collagen research go back to the 1980s. Scientists from Gdansk (Maria Sadowska, Ilona Kołodziejska and Eugeniusz Krajewski) carried out trailblazing experiments in the field of marine peptide (short amino acid chain) biochemistry. In 1985, chemists from Gdansk Polytechnic (Mieczysław Skrodzki, Antoni Michniewicz and Henryk Kujawa) extracted collagen from fish skin. Their research continued and their methods improved until they discovered and refined a process called hydrolysation.
Hydrolysation preserves the delicate bonds of the collagen helix and thus makes it possible to obtain intact collagen that is identical to the collagen made in the bodies of vertebrates. Crucially, the collagen peptide produced is biologically active and akin to the collagen made in the human body. Collagen obtained from fish is also safer than collagen obtained from mammals such as cows, and it has better chemical and physical durability.
Thanks to the efforts of the Polish scientists, methods of collagen production were devised that managed to preserve its unique triple helix formation of amino acid chains. As a result, it is now possible to achieve benefits from collagen supplementation that were previously unachievable because the supplements were based on substandard collagen peptide extraction processes.
The hydrolysed collagen available today can replenish collagen deficits within the human body, including in the skin – improving and reducing wrinkle formation and appearance. The results, which make us look younger and improve our internal wellbeing, are truly ingenious.