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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 5:30 EDT

Can Stem Cells Combat Wrinkles?

July 8, 2008

Restore and renew.

“Significantly reduces the loss of cells in the epidermis.”

“Regenerate cells and repair tissue.”

The newest skin creams beckon with an air of scientific gravitas, holding out the hope that now, at last, medicine has triumphed over the visible aging process. With tantalizing biological references and understated packaging, the products are among the first to capitalize on the public’s insatiable appetite for stem-cell technology.

“The goal of these products is to create a more youthful cell that would replenish elastin and collagen,” says Dr. Kenneth Beer, a West Palm Beach, Fla., dermatologist. A clinical instructor at the University of Miami, he conducts clinical trials on skin-care products.

And, of course, what better way to do that than to harness stem cells, those potential miracles of self-repair and curative power on which society is pinning so many medical hopes?

But a word of caution before you plunk down $80 or $155 for these potions: They might be no better than existing anti-aging skin creams, the best of which spur the skin to work harder but still produce only modest effects. Adds Beer of the stem-cell-touting products’ potential: “The notion that you could do that with a cream is a little bit ahead of itself. It’s a great piece of marketing because there is so much interest in stem cells.”

That’s not to say that stem cells couldn’t ultimately improve skin, perhaps in the next decade or so, says Dr. Leslie Baumann, a dermatology professor and director of the University of Miami’s Cosmetic Center – but that time has not arrived, she says.

For now, consumers are being misled, she says. In fact, the creams don’t even contain live stem cells – just the suggestion that they’re comparable in some way to the much-heralded, but largely unharnessed, cellular powerhouses.

The stem-cell skin cream frenzy began last year when a Salt Lake City company called Voss Laboratories released its product, Amatokin, at Bloomingdale’s with the advertising slogan “Stem Cells: The future of skin rejuvenation.” It cost $190 for a 30-milliliter tube – about 1 ounce.

Then came other, equally enticing products and promises. Celebrity dermatologist Nicholas Perricone offered up StimulCell ($155 for a 1.7-ounce jar), and Dior began hawking Capture R60/80 XP ($80 per 1.7-ounce jar). Although none of the manufacturers say the products contain stem cells, the marketing materials are vague enough that consumers could easily think they were applying the cells to their skin. Capture, for example, claims to “utilize stem cell technology”; Amatokin says it’s “made up of stem cell activating properties.”

Stem cells, most notably found in the tissue of developing fetuses, have the ability to develop into many types of tissue. Many labs are working on ways to cultivate them into specific tissues or substances that could be used to treat a variety of illnesses. Eventually, the cells could be coaxed into developing into liver, bone, skin or other tissues to replace missing, defective or diseased tissue.

But this research is in its infancy. Even if scientists figured out a way to get live stem cells into products, applying them to the skin – and expecting them to work – would be a lot to ask.

“There is no conceivable way today that stem cells could be delivered in a topical product,” Beer notes.

Instead, the products are designed to stimulate the skin’s own stem cells, which are layered between the epidermis and dermis. These cells are constantly dividing, with newer cells slowly moving to the surface and older cells being shed from the top layer. As people age, this turnover process slows, causing the loss of elasticity, uniform color and other characteristics that give skin its youthful appearance. The goal of many skin-care manufacturers is to find substances that provoke adult skin stem cells to behave like younger cells, speeding up the skin-turnover cycle.

* Amatokin’s advertising material says the product is “made up of stem-cell activating properties” that can reduce wrinkles. It “resets your skin’s aging clock by a minimum of five years.” The key ingredient is a peptide (a string of amino acids), says the creator of the preparation, Taras Nikolaev, a Russian scientist.

* Capture contains a mixture of proteins, antioxidants and herbs that will keep “actively producing adult stem cells alive and able to continue to produce more collagen,” says Dr. Neil Sadick, global medical adviser for Dior and a clinical professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College.

* Perricone’s StimulCell is made using adult skin cells, based on a cell line created by removing small pieces of undamaged skin from behind the ears of healthy young volunteers. These cells were grown in a culture and subjected to stresses that triggered the cells to secrete several substances, such as proteins and lipids. These components are then collected and put through filters to remove any viruses or foreign substances. The resulting dried powder is used in the cream.

Perricone acknowledges some discomfort in how StimulCell is marketed – it claims to replicate “signals delivered by skin stem cells” – noting that the product does not contain actual stem cells.

“I like to refer to them as precursor cells,” he says. “They act as messengers in the skin. They send signals to surrounding cells to bring about whatever change is needed. … Everyone is moving in this direction.”

The most effective products have ingredients such as retinols and glycolic acid that stress the skin and cause exfoliation. This process alone will “rev up” stem-cell activity, causing the old skin to slough off, says Baumann, author of “The Skin Type Solution” and whose lab conducts clinical trials for about 45 skin-care companies.

Even companies that do not describe their products as stem-cell technology are bottling cell-cultured substances intended to stimulate the skin’s ability to rejuvenate itself.

The most well-known of these products is SkinMedica’s TNS Recovery Complex, which is sold through doctors’ offices and online. It contains growth factors that play a key role in wound healing, says Rahul C. Mehta, senior scientific director of Carlsbad, Calif.- based SkinMedica Inc.

In a randomized, controlled, double-blind study, researchers concluded the product measurably improved skin texture. The study of 55 women was presented in February at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Another product, Neocutis’ Bio-restorative Skin Cream, also sold through doctors’ offices and online, contains a variety of growth factors and other substances secreted from cells. In a study of 37 women published last year in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, researchers found the product improved skin texture, sagging and wrinkles by averages ranging from 14 to 28 percent.