Speciality Crops

The Speciality Crops team is working to validate the biological functions of plants and products provided by different Cornish SMEs, assisting them in providing scientific evidence for the benefits of their products using 3D printing, cell culture and molecular techniques.

Historically, seaweeds and coastal plants have been used as a source of natural extracts for cosmetic and pharmaceutical applications because of the way they’ve evolved to cope with – and prosper in – their difficult natural environment. Their amino acids, vitamins, minerals – along with hydrophilic and anti-bacterial characteristics – have all been cited as reasons for their effectiveness.

Proponents say such ingredients can help with everything from combating the signs of ageing and fighting acne and dermatitis to helping circulation and relieving muscles and joints. The hydrating, anti-inflammatory and cooling functions of products incorporating them are much admired.

In addition to collaborating with SMEs to identify new plants which have properties that they could integrate into their existing products, the Speciality Crops project will work with them to analyse the functional compositions of their current offering and propose new formulations. 

Key to this will be using the unique ‘human skin equivalent platform’ established at the University of Plymouth’s Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry. This cutting-edge piece of kit replicates skin with huge degrees of reality, then creates movement, so yielding continuous and real-time insights into tissue and cellular ‘events’, thus giving insights into the ageing process and allowing different materials’ anti-wrinkling effectiveness to be tested.

Skin: Our largest organ

Skin is the largest organ in the body, accounting for around 15% of adult body weight. 

The skin plays an essential role in body protection and homeostasis. It is a complex, multi-layered structure composed of three layers; the epidermis, the dermis, and the hypodermis. Each component has special functions, and if any of these fail then it usually results in an undesirable effect, which can be anything from a rash to cancer. 

Skin research is an advanced and dynamic field in medicine, particularly for skin ageing and cancer research. 

The sun and your skin

Non-melanoma skin cancer usually originates in the outermost layer of the skin, most often developing in areas which are frequently exposed to the sun, including the face, hands, shoulders and back. 

There are two types of non-melanoma skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma starts in the cells lining the top of the epidermis, and accounts for around 20% of skin cancers. The South West has a high incidence of skin cancer, which has increased in the last two years.

By investigating the UVB protection properties of coastal Cornish crops, the Speciality Crops project is hoping to combat skin cancer by proving the benefits of these ingredients in topical skin care products. 

Meet the Speciality Crops team

Dr Bing Hu

Associate Professor, Peninsula Dental School

Dr Hu is an Associate Professor in Oral and Dental Health Research at the University of Plymouth. His research focuses on three key areas - skin and oral cancer and regeneration including 3D printing, tooth development and tissue engineering, and salivary gland development and diseases. He is the Principal Investigator on the Speciality Crops project. 

Dr Wai Ling Kok

Research Fellow

Wai Ling's work focuses on looking at various molecular mechanisms in which these products might confer anti-ageing or photo protective effects. To look at this, she measures the amount of free radicals or reactive oxygen species produced in the skin cells after UV exposure. 

Charlotte Illsley

Research Associate

Charlotte's work focuses on the development and optimisation of a 3D human skin equivalent model that can be used to mimic normal human skin. It has a broad range of applications that can be utilised by the project, including the testing of particular extracts on dermal and epidermal cells in a 3D environment and to see how these affect certain properties of the skin under a range of conditions. 

Chloe Bolton

Research Associate

Chloe's work focuses on epidermal wound healing, primarily using in vitro techniques to analyse the proliferation, polarisation, and migration of epidermal skin cells at the wound border. These techniques are used to investigate the effects of adding particular extracts and other compounds to the cells to see whether this enhances the rate of wound site closure. 


<p>Cornish seaweed</p>
<p>Speciality crops project samples</p>
<p>Speciality Crops project - close up of seaweed harvesting</p>

Testing with the 3D bioprinter

A new piece of technology at the University of Plymouth is helping researchers to develop a working skin substitute – which is able to mimic functional human skin.

The 3D bioprinter will enable the team to test whether some of the current coastal plants in Cornwall could have powerful skin-care applications.

Learn more about the 3D bioprinter here

European Regional Development Fund (ERDF)

The University of Plymouth is proud to be supported by the European Regional Development Fund. As one stream of funding under the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) Growth Programme 2014–2020, the ERDF focuses on smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. 

The main priorities involve contributions to research and innovation, supporting and promoting small and medium size enterprises (SMEs), and the creation of a low carbon economy. 

<p>Cornish seaweed</p>
<p>Seaweed sample - Speciality Crops project</p>
<p>Measuring seaweed for Speciality Crops project</p>
<p>Seaweed samples - Speciality Crops project</p>
<p>Speciality Crops project - harvesting seaweed</p>
<p>Seaweed samples - Speciality Crops project</p>
<p>Seaweed harvesting - Speciality Crops project</p>