The claims surrounding stem cell treatments are starting to get downright ridiculous. Case in point: so called stem cell technologies used in beauty products and herbal remedies. Various cosmetics lines have begun to market their goods as containing the benefit from plant stem cells. Many claim that these plant based stem cells will stimulate human stem cell growth and promote healthier younger looking skin. I don’t know about you, but my bullsh*t detector just exploded. Plant stem cells as age-defying makeup creams? Seriously? Have we reached the point where we’re so enraptured with the possibility of human stem cell technologies that we’ll buy anything with ‘stem cells’ in the product name? Look below for some pics, video, and plenty discussion about the outrageous hype surrounding these ‘miracle products.’
Human stem cell treatments already have socio-political turmoil surrounding them, we don’t really need more. Along with the original debate surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells, there’s controversy surrounding access to experimental new stem cell therapies. Every day there’s a publication containing promising new information on stem cell treatments for illnesses and injuries. Unsurprisingly the promise surrounding the blossoming science has fueled demand for such treatments to be available as soon as possible. Some can’t wait for regulatory agencies (like the FDA) to approve these technologies so they pursue them in unregulated locations around the globe via medical tourism. That is a trend that many in the field of stem cell research oppose. It’s a mess.
And now we have to add cosmetics into the fray. Companies like Eclos claim that using plant stem cell extracts will stimulate the growth of human skin stem cells, leading to a reduction in wrinkle depth, and healthier appearance. In short, they are selling you stem cells (plant stem cells, mind you!) as a cure for aging. Eclos is far from alone, there are many more doing much the same: Lancome/Nordstrom, Lather, Dr. Brandt Skincare,Emerge StemCell Skincare…the list goes on and on.
What’s the scientific basis for these claims? Well, I think this reference on the Lather website is representative. Small ‘clinical trials’ are used to study the appearance of middle aged women after a few weeks of using the plant stem cell product. The results are always absurdly successful. 100% positive results for Lather. Hallelujah, it’s a miracle! Check out the following video ad from Eclos if you want some more of the same:
I tried, I really did, to find some reputable scientific publications that either proved or alluded to the positive effects of plant stem cells on human skin. I found one possibility, published in the Journal SOFW, which claims that stem cells from the Uttwiler Spautlauber apple (the same breed used in many of the products linked to above) caused an increase in human cell proliferation by 80%. I believe this is the same paper (based on images, etc) that is obliquely referenced by several companies listed above. There are many problems with this article. First, the authors seem to be from a company that promotes and sells various cosmetic products that use the cells under review. Second, I can’t find any indication that SOFW is a reputable peer-reviewed scientific journal (though I will fully retract this concern if someone can provide evidence to the contrary). Lastly, the paper makes claims that these apple stem cells protect and preserve human cells by avoiding senescence (death) and promoting replication. Even if they could do these things, rapid replication and avoidance of cell death reads like a recipe for cancer. Not exactly something we want from our skincare products. Overall, I remain far from convinced of this paper’s scientific accuracy or general veracity…and this was the most professional looking evidence the plant stem cell industry seems ready to offer. In fact, I think it might be the entire ‘scientific basis’ for the whole apple stem cell craze!
Look, stem cells are a real and viable technology. There’s also interesting work being done with plant stem cells that might, one day, have some impact on human stem cell research. But these “stem cell” cosmetics…I can’t make an outright claim that they are fraudulent (egads, considering the legal issues, I don’t know if I would if I could) but I think even a little application of common sense paints them as suspect. It seems clear to me that the cosmetics industry is cashing in on the general hope and hype surrounding the medical use of human stem cells. I’m sure history is full of examples of this happening with every emerging technology – for instance, did you know they used x rays to treat acne?
The problem is that in this case the emerging technology has enough problems on its own. Medical professionals and scientific researchers are struggling with keeping the public informed about the dangers and limitations of human stem cell technologies already on the market. Do I want to deny the possibility that stem cells might one day be used for cosmetic treatments? Not at all. But I sincerely doubt that any of the hype surrounding these plant stem cell cosmetic lines will pan out. Spend your money as you like, but I think these marketing ploys are part of the problem, not the solution.
[image credits: Eclos, Lather]
[sources: SOFW, websites as linked in text]