Tanned and trim, with nary a telltale wisp of gray at the temples or a trace of a crow's toe (let alone an entire foot), South Africa's one-time medical meteor hardly blinks when people insist that he cannot be 63. "I do everything possible," he replies matter of factly, "to retard the aging process."
If the folks at Alfin Fragrances have their way, millions of consumers will believe that Barnard owes his youthful glow, at least in part, to skin-care cream (pardon us, creme) unlike any other on the market. Creme containing miraculous little molecules called glycosphingolipids that, so its maker claims, stimulate tired old cells into cranking out good stuff like RNA and DNA and protein, that increase circulation and, on the order of a gooey fountain of youth, pump moisture into age-ravaged skin. Creme that holds the same dream that sent Ponce de Leon mucking around Florida and, four centuries later, drives the multibillion-dollar cosmetics industry.
When word of Alfin's new Glycel line leaked several months ago, perhaps few outside the skin trade would have noticed, were it not for the imprimatur of the famed surgeon. Indeed, in glossy publicity packets later distributed by the company, Barnard was credited with having discovered and developed the alleged rejuvenating ingredient, glycosph . . . - heck, GSL.
At the mere mention of a man whose formidable reputation went back nearly 20 years to the world's first heart transplant, the ears of retailers, not to mention reporters, perked up. So did Alfin stock. One New York business writer predicted that, within 18 months of Glycel's recent debut, its sales could well exceed $21 million. That's as much as Alfin pulled in during 1985 on all its other products, including such pricey scents as Ombre Rose and Bal a Versailles.
"Incredible is not a word that is normally in my vocabulary, but that's the only way to describe it - incredible," enthused Irwin Alfin, chairman of the board. "We can't get any work done around here because of the phone calls from consumers and stores. I've never seen anything like it in all the years I've been in this business."
"Incredible" has been a word on the tips of other tongues as well. Dermatologists - those dreary types who are forever telling people to stop spending their money on exotic emollients and to buy sun screens and hats instead - haven't hidden their skepticism.
If such a breakthrough in the treatment of aging skin has actually been achieved, several have wondered out loud, why hasn't it been published in the scientific literature? If GSL is present in young skin but diminishes with age, where's the proof that the loss of GSL - rather than a culprit as obvious as ultraviolet light - is the cause of old skin and not just a characteristic? How could a molecule as sizable as GSL be taken into the dermis without producing irritation? Would the Food and Drug Administration have approved a substance for nonprescription use if it really could change cell biology?
"Extremely suspicious" has been the typical reaction, in this case coming
from Paul Gross, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, chief of dermatology at Pennsylvania Hospital and director of the Institute for Cosmetic Enhancement in Philadelphia. "In other words," he opines, "I think this could be just some fancy moisturizing cream."
Or more precisely, creams: nine of them to be used variously around the eyes, at night, during the day, as a facial scrub, a cleanser, a toner, a treatment activator et al. Consumers who want to go whole-hog can spend upward of $400 to be age-proofed by Alfin. "That's just what they do when they try to sell you a whole batch of products," Gross cautioned. "After all, somebody's got to pay for the color ads and the endorsement."
Which brings us back to Barnard, now touring the country to plug Glycel and, so he contends, not making much money at it. ("I tell you honest, I only get 5 percent of 3 1/2 percent of the royalties, however much that is.") Dapper in immaculate navy pinstripes, lit by the beigey glow of Irwin Alfin's executive aerie over Fifth Avenue, he is positively chipper, the proverbial calm at the center of a cosmetics storm. Or is he?
"The thing is, I was not instrumental in making the skin-care product," Barnard explains. "I was not instrumental in that at all. I must tell you the truth. The man responsible for it was Dr. Rolf Schaefer."
"I was not even involved in the development of the transdermal carrier," he says of Glycel's other key ingredient, the one that is supposed to take the regenerative GSL into the skin. "Schaefer developed that also. He showed me his experimental work, but I was not involved with it."
Barnard, it should be noted, did not just drop out of the blue and into this sticky affair. No, there's a story here, going back many years to a time when the appearance of severe rheumatoid arthritis first threatened to end his surgical career, when he wrote a book on euthanasia and caused a stir by revealing that he and his brother had agreed to remove their terminally ill mother from all life support.
Whatever the trigger, he became intrigued with the aging process and the search for ways in which it might be at least retarded, if not stopped completely.
"The thing that interested me was the immortal cell," he recalls. "It seems, by some change in the genetic information, a cell can become immortal. That's the thing that interested me very much. And you know, there are many ways in which genetic meterial can be manipulated. So I wondered in my thoughts, 'Could this happen?' "
He not only began reading research material but also scouted out Europe's trendy anti-aging clinics. He took injections of fetal-lamb cells, which had alleged rejuvenating powers. ("I thought, 'Well, it's not going to do any harm, and maybe it will do some good.' ") He also set up his own experiments at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, where he was then chief specialist in the heart-surgery department.
Along the way, he met up with Schaefer, a cell biologist who headed the Schaefer Institute in Basel, Switzerland, and whose renowned father had been part of the team that synthesized penicillin. "Schaefer was telling me about this fantastic molecule he discovered, the GSL, and that this promotes wound-healing," he says. "He showed me the experiments he had done. I then suggested we try burn wounds."
According to Barnard, the tests showed that if GSL were applied topically to a burn wound, healing would occur 30 to 40 percent faster. He came up with a plan to try to put GSL, a soluble molecule, to work in intravenous fluids for post-operative use. It never happened.
"What (Schaefer and his research team) did - and this is when I didn't go on with the experimental work - they then explored the possibility of using it in a skin-care product," Barnard recounts. "That was totally their idea to use it that way. It was not mine." One of the main functions of the Schaefer Institute, he points out, is the testing and development of commercially viable products. "I think they thought it would be commercially better - and quicker - for them to go into a skin-care product than to go into intravenous fluid."
That, in part, answers the nagging question of why none of the work was published. "It depends on Schaefer to publish, not me," Barnard says with a shrug. "He was not keen to publish at this stage because he said he was afraid people would catch on to it and he would not make his money."
Alfin purchased the worldwide rights to the line - for a figure reported, but unconfirmed by the company, to be in the vicinity of $4 million - and holds the attendant patents. According to Irwin Alfin, the company has no
plans to use GSL as anything other than a skin-care preparation.
Barnard may not be the father of Glycel, but let it never be said that he doesn't use it. Is it working, one wonders?
"I must say, I've never used a skin-care product before, so I can't say how one is different from another," he says. "But I find it very - I like it. My skin feels good. I don't know whether I look younger. Everyone tells me I look younger. But it may be due to the fetal-lamb-cell injections I had."
From the other side of Irwin Alfin's big desk comes a moan. "Please, please," the executive implores. "I'll get indigestion sitting here."
Long before his retirement as a surgeon in 1983, Barnard was locked, quite literally, in a battle with arthritis. For the last 10 years, to combat the disease that stiffened his fingers, he took an array of anti-imflammato ry drugs. Sometimes they worked, and sometimes they didn't, most notably during his divorce three years ago from his second wife, when he was so crippled by pain that he could barely get out of bed for months.
"One day I spoke to a man who said to me, 'You should try hydrogen peroxide,' " he recalls, imitating the way his jaw dropped at the suggestion. ''I was a little scared, although there's quite a bit of literature on hydrogen peroxide intravenously and even by mouth for the treatment of various conditions. So I started taking it."
For the last month he has been quaffing the heavily diluted brew - and is off anti-inflammatory drugs. "I really do feel better," he contends. "I'm very scared to say this, because arthritis goes up and down and up and down, and this could be a natural remission. And now that I don't have the operating-room pressure, the mental and the physical pressures, I'm also feeling better."
Feeling well enough, certainly, to do some global hopscotching. He recently accepted a position on the staff of the Baptist Medical Center at the University of Oklahoma. There, for eight months a year, he will collaborate with scientists on projects related to (ah, the man doesn't give up) genetics and aging. He also is setting up a preventive-medicine program on an island off the coast of Greece, as well as running a pair of restaurants in Cape Town. And of course, promoting - and defending - Glycel.
Although he complains about the complaints from dermatologists ("some of them say it's a hoax, but where is their experimental work for saying it's a
hoax?"), Barnard takes the buffeting in stride.
"They say (Alfin) is just using my image," he says, shrugging. "Well, I'm sure they wouldn't have used me if I was just John Jones. But the one thing you realize - and I have realized it, to my regret - is that the name only starts something. It does not sell something.
"I have written 14 books. My name was on them all, and none were best- sellers. I have two restaurants, and I know very well that, although my signature is on the plates, if people don't get good food and service the first time, they will not come back."
"It is very easy for them just to say, 'To hell with Barnard.' "