The Great Stem Cell & Growth Factor Debate

Lab scientist conducting experiments
Is stem cell and growth factor technology the key to the fountain of youth?

Sounds like sci-fi in a jar but hundreds of skin care companies are espousing the virtues of stem cells as the answer to youthful skin. So what exactly is all the buzz about and do they truly deliver their promises?

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are the basic building block of the body. All types of specific cells in our body (blood, liver, bone marrow, collagen producing cells etc.) originate from our stem cells. As we age, the number of stem cells in our bodies reduces and we are less able to heal and regenerate new cells.

What does the consumer expect of stem cell therapy?

Consumers expect stem cells to address visible signs of ageing. They are expected to transform into cells, which produce collagen and elastin (fibroblasts) so that they can address wrinkles and rejuvenate the skin.

Can stem cells survive in a skin serum or cream outside the human body?

The market is being bombarded with advertisements about stem cells in skincare products. In simple terms, this cannot work, as these cells are dead.

Keeping stem cells active is not a simple procedure. Apart from sterile laboratory technology, stem cells need a perfectly balanced and specialised growth culture medium to remain viable. It is therefore difficult to accept that stem cells can still be viable if added to skin care base creams and serums. These delicate cells cannot survive in serums, cream or in the air. If not stored properly, they will certainly perish within minutes. And even if the cells could survive in a totally inhospitable skin-care base, they cannot be absorbed through the skin due to their large molecular size.

Are plant stem cells valid?

There are numerous lotions and potions containing botanical stem cell, such as apple or pear stem cells. Like human stem cells, plant stem cells are just as vulnerable. They require the perfect growth medium to survive and are unable to penetrate human skin. It is highly unlikely that they would survive in any skincare base. Furthermore, how can plant stem cells possible be compatible with human cells? The species are not even remotely related.

Are stem cell injections effective?

Some clinics offer new treatments whereby the patient’s blood is processed to separate out stem cells, which are then injected back into their face. This is believed to stimulate the proliferation of new cells. Logically, when the face is injured by the needle many times during stem cell injections, the skin be injured, will swell and appears plumped. It begins to repair itself by stimulating the production of collagen in response to the needle injuries. This is perhaps why the patient appears to look better following stem cell injections.

Can stem cells be stored?

There is a technique called “deep freeze cryostore’’ in which the clients own stem cells are stored at very low temperatures so that cells stop proliferating and may be used in the future. However, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that stem cells can remain viable after being stored for an extended period.

What are growth factors?

The stem cells actually produce growth factors, which may rejuvenate skin and address many signs of ageing. Growth factors are protein segments

(peptides) that act as chemical messengers and allow communication between cells in our body and are the control mechanism for wound healing and regeneration of cells. The method of preparing these growth factors from stem cells is highly specialised and cannot be performed by simple ‘mashing’ stem cells to release the vital growth factors. Furthermore, these growth factors need to be stabilised and protected by delivery systems (liposomes) and will not work if applied directly to the skin.

There are a number of factors that concern me regarding the application of growth factors:

1. Growth factors are non selective

If the growth factor applied to the skin is actually delivered correctly and small enough to penetrate and reach target cells, then it may stimulate ALL types of cells to regenerate. If there is an underlying mutated cell then the growth factor may stimulate this cell too. My concern is that growth factors astimulate malignant cells as well as health cells- they do not have the capacity to choose which cell they stimulate

2. Growth factor molecular size

Growth factors are essentially small pieces of protein making up an amino acid chain. The ideal number of amino acids able to penetrate the skin is 10 amino acids or less. The most common growth factor applied to skin is Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF), an ingredient that was released almost twenty years ago. This amino acid is composed of 53 amino acids and is very difficult to penetrate into the dermis due to its large molecular weight.

3. Are plant growth factors effective?

It is difficult to accept from a scientific perspective that a growth factor from a plant can be compatible with human cells. Growth factors which are chemically identical to human factors will be more effective but may also be more stimulating on malignant or pre-malignant cells.

The future of stem cells and growth factors

Bone marrow transplants use stem cell technology and is currently one of the only stem cell treatments that is medically and scientifically approved. Most other stem cell research is still at an experimental and often controversial stage.

Stem cells used in clinical treatments may be part of the future of skin care, but there are many hurdles to overcome. There is, in my scientific opinion, currently no effective method to deliver viable stem cells into human skin via a cream or serum.

Growth factors, on the other hand will play a significant role in the future of skin care. However, more research is necessary harnessing safety, stability, delivery and effectiveness of growth factors.

It is my belief as a formulator, that the only truly safe and viable method of using growth factor therapy is to stimulate the clients’ skin from within to produce their own growth factors in a controlled manner. There are currently come naturally occurring and laboratory produced peptides that can effectively stimulate the skin to produced their own growth internal factors that the body recognises as ‘self’ and will be able to effectively harness to rejuvenate skin.

We are truly entering into a ‘brave new world’ when it comes to harnessing stem cells and growth factors in cosmetic medicine. We must tread carefully and be cynical about promises and claims. The future is exciting but all clinical data and results must be fully validated from a safety and efficacy perspective before we invest in this technology.

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