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Innovation Economy

They won't cure cancer, but might get rid of cellulite

'Aesthetic medicine' firms hope vanity has its price

Looking good is about to get a lot more expensive.

A cluster of New England companies is developing drugs and medical devices that will reduce wrinkles and cellulite, grow hair where you want it and remove it where you don't, and help you manage your impulse to overeat.

And while keeping you young and slim may not be as socially redeeming as, say, devising a vaccine for the next flu pandemic, millions of dollars in venture capital funding are flowing into the sector dubbed "aesthetic medicine," puffing up local start-ups like a shot of collagen injected into a pair of lips.

In 2005, the US market for aesthetic devices and therapies was $2 billion, according to Windhover Information -- a number that is expected to grow to $4.2 billion by 2010.

Much of this will be driven by the vanity of aging baby boomers. "They are determined that they're not going to get old, and they're willing to spend the money to keep looking good," says Concord biotech consultant Michael Kobos.

The new drugs and technologies being developed locally, if they fulfill their promise, could turn Jabba the Hutt into America's Next Top Model.

Follica Inc. in Boston is trying to commercialize research from the University of Pennsylvania that shows how stem cells inside the human body can be induced to become new follicle cells and start cranking out hair.

Follica founder Daphne Zohar is out pitching the company to venture capitalists -- many of whom, she has noted, are men in their 40s with hairline issues who quickly perk up when they hear about Follica's plans to use a microdermabrasion device in combination with a topical drug to spark follicle production.

Zohar's husband, Yishai, is chief executive of another aesthetic medicine start-up in Boston and Israel. Gelesis Inc. is developing a substance that could be packed into a pill and swallowed. Once in the stomach, the substance would expand, offering a temporary feeling of fullness to discourage overeating before eventually passing out of the system.

GI Dynamics Inc. is a bit further ahead, conducting clinical trials of a polymer sleeve that can be implanted in the small intestine by an endoscope.

"It forms a barrier between the food and the intestinal wall," allowing fewer calories to be absorbed, explains Mike Carusi, a venture capitalist at Advanced Technology Ventures who has invested in the company. "We're mimicking the bypass portion of a gastric bypass surgery, and it has an effect in addressing not only obesity and weight loss, but also potentially diabetes."

The Watertown company has raised $46 million so far.

Other start-ups are targeting the appearance of skin. Julia Therapeutics LLC in Wellesley is preparing to start clinical trials in Europe for an ultrasound device that might stimulate the skin to produce new collagen, reducing wrinkles.

SmoothShapes Inc. of Merrimack, N.H., will soon start selling a $69,000 device to dermatologists and plastic surgeons. It aims to reduce cellulite by combining light therapy with massage.

Also part of the local aesthetic scene are such public companies as Palomar Medical Technologies, which makes devices to treat acne and minimize leg veins using light, and Anika Therapeutics Inc., which this month got FDA approval to start selling Elevess. When injected, Elevess can diminish wrinkles.

Two trends are sparking all this activity in aesthetic medicine. First is the fact that patients will pay for most of these treatments with their own money. That makes life easier for both doctors and companies since they don't have to deal with insurers.

Second, big pharmaceutical and device companies appear to be ignoring aesthetic medicine, creating a gap for start-ups to fill. "Culturally, it's not where the bigger players have been," says Dan Dubin, a dermatologist by training who is vice chairman of the Boston investment bank Leerink Swann & Co. "But I think they're now contemplating how they can get there."

That could mean developing their own products, but more likely they'll go shopping for acquisitions.

Some executives bristle at the suggestion that what they're working on might not be as important as, say, a new drug for pancreatic cancer.

At her previous company, SmoothShapes CEO Nancy Briefs worked on new treatments for heart disease. "I've worked on stents, and I feel as passionate about helping women feel better about themselves," she says, adding that 60 million women in the United States have cellulite. "It may not be life-saving, but it's life-sustaining and improving."

It's not clear whether this is a zero-sum game: Would all that venture capital money, if not devoted to aesthetic medicine firms, be going instead to start-ups working on more vital products?

For consumers, the challenge will be sorting out which treatments work. Miraculous-looking before-and-after photos will be splashed across magazine ads and the Internet, as much as some scientists might prefer that consumers focus on the data from clinical trials.

But the linchpin of success for these new drugs and devices, ultimately, may be other people: our families, friends, workout partners, and colleagues. When they don't notice anything different, the product or procedure is clearly not worth the cost. But when they say "You look marvelous," whether they mean it or not, that's always money well-spent.

Innovation Economy is a new weekly column that will focus on entrepreneurship, technology, and venture capital in New England. Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

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