Skin & Human Stem Cells : An Introduction |

Skin & Human Stem Cells : An Introduction

We have a lot of knowledge to share with you about stem cells and their value in skin care.  We thought we would start with a current review of ongoing work in human stem cell science to give you some context. In the next few days we will be getting a lot more specific about wound healing,  anti-aging, and related applications.

Human Stem Cells: Introduction

Future advances in many medical fields are thought to be dependent on continued progress in stem cell research. In this section, BTF briefly looks at the future of stem cell based therapies in the treatment of traumatic injury, degenerative diseases, and other ailments, and concludes with a review of current cell based therapies (stem cell and non-stem cell) in the field of skin care.

While the possible indications for stem cell based therapies are numerous, the field of stem cell science is young and years (or decades) may pass before today’s “promising” laboratory results translate into useful clinical treatments. Only time will tell whether successes evolve or remain frustratingly elusive. We do know that success is possible.

The first stem cell therapy was bone marrow transplantation, originally accomplished in the mid 1960’s. Last year, there were more than 50,000 such transplants worldwide. In earlier years, infusion of filtered bone marrow cells was performed with stem cells comprising but a very small part of the volume. Newer techniques have made it possible to separate cellular types to enable use of much higher concentrations of stem cells.

Much progress has been made in characterizing stem cells and understanding how they function. There is much more to the story than differentiation into tissue specific cells. Recent research shows that perhaps even more important is the fact that stem cells, especially certain types of stem cells, “communicate” with the cells around them by producing cellular signals called cytokines, of which there are hundreds.

Cytokines trigger specific receptors on cell membranes that result in precise responses. This phenomenon is considered an essential element in the healing response of all tissues. Identifying and characterizing the large number of cytokines is an important part of stem cell research.

Not every induced response is necessarily beneficial. It is the “symphony” of responses that is important. How to promote helpful responses while inhibiting non-beneficial ones is a continuing focus of cellular biochemical research as well as the basis upon which drug companies spend huge resources developing drugs to either trigger or block particular cytokine receptors. Good examples in the field of dermatology are EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor) blocking compounds for use in treating susceptible cells, most notably cancers stimulated by EGF.

Potential Treatments

Stem cell therapies hold potential to treat many conditions and diseases that affect millions of people in the U.S.

From the Laboratory to the Bedside

Going from the research laboratory to the bedside takes time. Only one month ago, the FDA granted marketing approval for the first licensed stem cell product.  Derived from donated umbilical cord blood, the product contains stem cells that can restore a recipient’s blood cell levels and function. In the chart below, the type of cells recovered from umbilical cord blood are those designated as “HSC” cell. They are the exact cells responsible for the success of bone marrow transplantation.

Of particular note are the cells designated in the chart as “MSC” or mesenchymal stem cells. MSC cells are the focus of intense research in the treatment of a number of conditions because this type of stem cell can differentiate into a variety of cell types including bone, cartilage, muscles, nerve, and skin (fibroblast.)

Recent announcements about stem cells being used to fabricate “replacement parts” (bone, cartilage, heart muscle) are based on MSC research. They truly are the “duct tape” of the body’s repair tool box”; a phrase coined because of their importance in the healing of injuries.

Research has shown MSC cells reside in a number of tissues, including the bone marrow. Through precise chemical signaling that originate from sites of injury, MSC cells have the ability to become mobile, enter the blood stream and travel through the circulation to the injury. Upon arrival, MSCs orchestrate the healing response.  Local resident stem cells are also called into action, to produce more stem cells or to produce needed tissue specific cells. In large part, MSCs accomplish their tasks bio-chemically.

Secreted cytokines have been identified as the major mechanism by which MSCs perform their important reparative functions. There are hundreds of cytokines identified thus far. The healing response is an intricate and balanced process in which many cytokines participate.

Despite their inherent ability to differentiate into essentially any type of cell, embryonic stem cells are unlikely to be a major research focus in the foreseeable future. Ethical and political considerations limit the acceptability of their use. Federal regulations permit research only on existing cell lines which are few in number. It is difficult to see how this prohibition will end any time soon.

Getting Closer but Not There Yet

MSC (mesenchymal stem cell) therapies include use of cells and use of MSC factors, the cytokines or chemical messengers mentioned above. Methods of administration will likely include intravenous infusion, injections into tissues or body spaces, or development of drugs that activate or block certain cytokine effects.  Drugs already in development include epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) blockers for use in cancer treatment.

Stem Cells and Skin Health

From fetal life to death, the numbers and activity of stem cells diminish.  The chart at left shows how the population of mesenchymal stem cells in the bone marrow dwindles with age.

Knowing that stem cells are important in producing differentiated daughter cells (such as fibroblasts within the dermis) and are instrumental in “orchestrating” the body’s response to injury, it is easy to understand how skin damage from sun exposure, gravity, smoking, trauma, toxins, even repetitive facial movement, accumulates over time.

This is one line of evidence (we will look at others) that mesenchymal stem cells (or more specifically the relative lack of same) has a lot to do with aging.  Skin aging included.



Products Claiming to “Activate” Skin Stem Cells

The number of skin products claiming to “activate” human skin stem cells is large and growing. As discussed previously on BFT, a whole slew of plant derived “stem cell” products are being marketing, NONE of which can actually or theoretically activate anything, especially not a human stem cell.

Other products claim to have essential nutrients or antioxidants or some other “magical” ingredient that will suddenly make stem cells take notice and unleash their regenerative power. It is highly unlikely, except in the most extreme case of malnourishment, that any nutrient or antioxidant is deficient enough to cause a cell not to function.

These and the botanical stem cell products are marketing ploys. Human stem cells deep within the dermis will never know whether or not these substances are applied. Moisturizers and other recognized ingredients in these products can be beneficial to skin appearance…but not because a stem cell is involved.

This is worse than junk science.  This is scamming.


  1. milli says:

    I have visited your site daily for the past week. I would like to thank you for the careful attention to detail obvious here. Your design and layout are first rate (not what I would expect from a couple of docs). Keep up the good work! I have some questions about stem cells but will wait until the final chapter.

  2. Jina says:

    Hi, the serum I was using during the summer was ISOMERS Matrixyl advanced wrinkle defense serum. Formulation: linseed extract, water, glycerin, butylene glycol, carbomer, polysorbate 20, palmitoyl pentapeptide-4, palmitoyl pligopeptide, palmitoyl tetra peptide-7, hydroxypropl cyclodextrin, palmitoyl tripeptide-38, sodium hyaluronate, methylparaben, propylparaben.

    I have not used it for while as cold weather has irritated my skin and don’t want to add too many ingredients to it. Looking at their site and new formulation has PE instead of paragons and double the price.

    Had a look at today’s post on stem cells. Looking forward to few days off during Christmas to absorb everything. Very interesting reading.


  3. Christallin says:

    I think they need to activate their brain cells more so than their skin cells.

  4. Tahir says:

    Hi Dr,

    I am using Cholley’s Plant stem cells like Apple, alpine etc serum and creams on face for the last 6 months or so, and there is no improvement on my laugh lines, under eys fine lines and forehead lines and sagging skin.

    Do you suggest any best result oriented inovative tropical product to improve my condition?

    Best regds

    • drgeorge says:

      Tahir, we’re not surprised. Expecting so-called plant stem cells to provide the necessary signals to stimulate tissue changes on the scale that one would expect facial lines to disappear is, in our humble opinion, not scientifically rational. We invite you to read our posts on plant “stem cells”. Frankly, we consider these products to be exploitative of consumers, that is certainly the case when it comes to the marketing messages used to sell them. The promise and miracles of medical stem cell research are erroneously conferred onto products whose marketing includes the words “stem cell.”

      The marketing messages are often inanely absurd. A few examples:

      “Stem cells derived from rare Swiss apple trees, the apples of which don’t wrinkle in the cellar over the winter months, will prevent human skin from wrinkling.”

      “Stem cells from the edelweiss plant, which grows at high altitude where ultraviolet radiation is strong, will help human skin prevent solar damage.”

      “Stem cells from date palms, which grow in hot arid climates, will help human skin withstand harsh dry conditions.”

      See a pattern here? We suggest you consider products based on human stem cells, where the biosignals are actually physiologic, natural and well documented to positively impact skin. BFT readers know we strongly believe bone marrow mesechymal stem cells, the migratory stem cells in control of tissue repair and regeneration in every human on the planet, are superior as a source of bio-signals (growth factors & cytokines) for topical skin products.

  5. Kika says:

    A bit off subject about human stem cells, but wondering:
    What about Swiss products that have DNA and RNA extracted from the sockeye salmon fish eggs. Can this really benefit the skin and prevent aging? Also, can it be good after microneedling?

  6. Dee Henderson says:

    I came across a blog discussing concerns of prion transfer when using human derived stem cell/cytokin microneedling products. Can you speak to this please?
    Thank you!

    • drjohn says:

      Hi Dee, The term “prions” refers to abnormal, pathogenic agents that are transmissible and are able to induce abnormal folding of specific normal cellular proteins called prion proteins that are found most abundantly in the brain. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is a rare brain disorder – in the US there are about 350 cases per year. Most cases are genetic/hereditary in origin, or sporadic. Less than 1% are acquired (so about 1 case every 3 years). A type of CJD called variant CJD (or vCJD) can be acquired by eating meat from cattle affected by a disease similar to CJD called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or, commonly, “mad cow” disease. The mode of transmission is by eating the neural tissues (brains, spinal cord) of an affected animal. Or human (There is a disease that only occurs in cannibals in new Guinea who ingest the brains of their victims, called kuru).
      No transmission through blood contact (small volume) or transfusion (large volume) has ever been reported for classic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). Moreover, a series of epidemiological surveillance, case-control, and look-back studies have provided no evidence of such transmission of CJD. Hence, the risk of such transmission of classic CJD through blood contact remains theoretical.

      Human mesenchymal stem cells of bone marrow origin have also proven their safety in many clinical trials. These are not neurologic tissues, and there has never been any evidence that CJD prions could be harbored therein. The theoretical risk from the process of cell culture actually derives from the common use of bovine serum albumin (BSA) in cell culturing. It contains many factors that help cells thrive and grow. However, that industry is tightly regulated with FDA oversight. All cow herds in the US are regularly tested, and BSA comes with certifications of testing. So, even the theoretical risk is eliminated. In addition to that, we also use “serum free” cultures where we substitute recombinant growth factors so that no BSA is required. So, all-in-all, the risk of contamination is pretty much infinitesimal. In fact I could point to many other things in personal care products that carry greater risks. So, bottom line – leave infected brains of cows and fellow humans off your menu, and hope your ancestors did the same – and you should be safe from CJD and its variants.

  7. Dee Henderson says:

    Dr. John,
    THANK YOU!!! We have been using your Anteage MD micro needling solution with FANTASTIC results and now complete, absolute peace of mind and clarity is mine.
    Again, thank you for your reply, time and contribution to our “fountain of youth”

  8. Sche says:

    Thank you for your blog and the information you share.
    I am wondering if you could give me some feedback about the much-talked-about TFC8 by Augustinus Bader?

    • drgeorge says:

      We must be frank. This product line is one of the most underwhelming ones we have seen. From their website:
      “TFC8®, or Trigger Factor Complex, is our patented technology that powers Augustinus Bader Skincare [….] TFC8® is composed of natural amino acids, high-grade vitamins and synthesized molecules naturally found in skin”

      The ingredient list in their very expensive “The Serum”, priced at $350-$375 for one ounce (30 ml), includes the following:

      Aqua/Water/Eau, Glycerin, 1,2-Hexanediol, Cellulose, Ethylhexyl Polyhydroxystearate, Resveratrol, Squalane, Sodium Acrylates Copolymer, Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate, Oryza Sativa (Rice) Bran Oil, Maltitol, Leontopodium Alpinum Callus Culture Extract, Xylitylglucoside, Lecithin, Anhydroxylitol, Citric Acid, Xylitol, Hydrolyzed Rice Protein, Maltodextrin, Sodium Hyaluronate, Sodium Hydroxide, O-Cymen-5-Ol, Punica Granatum Extract, Sodium Phytate, Glucose, Xanthan Gum, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Hydrogenated Lecithin, Tocopheryl Acetate, Alanyl Glutamine, Arginine, Oligopeptide-177, Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Chloride, Phenylalanine, Sisymbrium Irio Seed Oil.

      Within this list are resveratrol, ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate, and tocopheryl acetate, common active ingredients frequently found in many skincare products, as are many of the other ingredients. Oligopeptide-177 seems to be found only in Augustinus Bader products only. It is a synthetic peptide containing 33 amino acids with “no reported” functions through Google, PubMed, and Google Scholar searches (at least as far as we could find). All positive comments are of the users “agree” variety. Specifically:

      95% agree skin looks brighter and more radiant.
      94% agree skin looks and feels balanced and refreshed.
      91% agree skin looks healthier than ever before.
      93% agree fine lines and wrinkles appear reduced.
      91% agree skin looks like it is regenerating faster than ever after use.
      97% agree skin texture has improved.
      92% agree skin looks smoother and more even.
      90% agree brown spots and age spots appear reduced.
      98% agree skin feels soft, supple and more elastic.

      In perusing the company website, we could find no evidence of true scientific evaluations of their products. All positive comments were of the “users agree” type, specifically:

      95% agree skin looks brighter and more radiant.
      94% agree skin looks and feels balanced and refreshed.
      91% agree skin looks healthier than ever before.
      93% agree fine lines and wrinkles appear reduced.
      91% agree skin looks like it is regenerating faster than ever after use.
      97% agree skin texture has improved.
      92% agree skin looks smoother and more even.
      90% agree brown spots and age spots appear reduced.
      98% agree skin feels soft, supple and more elastic.

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