Stem Cells and Growth Factors in Skin Care.  Hype v. Hope (Round 1). |

Stem Cells and Growth Factors in Skin Care.  Hype v. Hope (Round 1).

If I can’t touch them  how am I supposed to know if they are real or not? We are, of course, talking about stem cells. The stuff of high science, not fairy tales…right?  The answer is yes, and no. As the marketers like to say – you need to tell a good story. benefit-theyrereal mascara What they sometimes fail to reveal is that the story is a TALL TALE.  The favored theme is hope, promise, great things from the latest science. But those products that are short on actual results.  Worse, they are short on any actual stem cell science (hey – it sounds good, right?).  Or they weave a whopper that equates the marvels of human stem cells and the growth factors they make with swiss apple tree clippings and garden snail snot.  Same stuff, right?  In a pig’s retina, maybe. So, we have our own story to tell. It’s about an epic battle between science and nonsense. The characters include doctors, scientists, and health/beauty consumers of all stripes,  a media that loves to sensationalize, and a world where truth has become a matter of relativity. Lots of drama to be found here, so get out the genetically unmodified popcorn and settle in for a good night’s read. Gartner-Hype-Cycle-v2Our story begins with the remarkable science of stem cells and their application in beauty, regenerative and aesthetic medicine.  As a still nascent field, stem cell research becomes a canvas of sorts,  upon which we project an image of new, amazing, potent, leading edge, and filled with promise of wonderful things.  As is often the case, there are those individuals and companies who will want to exploit that image to their economic advantage, and may even resort to painting it on a product  that in reality has little or nothing to do with stem cells or growth factors.  Some skirt the truth with pseuodoscience yes, we have many examples), and some just outright lie by incorporating stem cell in the name or description of some product that has nothing to do with actual stem cell science. We have uncovered a few of those in past posts. Others have surveyed the array of products out there more completely. This strategy is hardly new. In some ways this is reminiscent of the early days of electricity.  The press followed the exploits of pioneers like Edison, and electricity was a buzz word for all things modern and good.  Soon we began to see drhallquackcharlatans and quacks selling all manner of electrical devices for all known ailments.  They were advertised widely. People bought them because they had a need, and electricity was the new science that would surely cure everything in time.  Nearly all those devices were worthless, or dangerous, or both.  But a lot of people made a lot of money selling them.  Some probably believed their own hype.  Others had no scruples and reality was a distant consideration. There is a sucker born every minute, after all.  Why be hampered by something as tedious as the truth? Before electricity there was snake oil and any number of toxic nostrums. We need not explore these in detail other than to say that there is a very long history of pulling the wool over the eyes of an unsuspecting public. Over time, electricity has become a force harnessed for medical applications that really work, with solid evidence to back their claims.  We will find the same to be the case with stem cells ands skin care. As was the case then, and is being repeated now, there tends to arise opposing voices of those who repel such notions.  That can be a good thing – we will call them whistleblowers.  As the docs here have been accused of just this sort of thing on more than one occasion, we can generally empathize with those who desire to uncover deceit and defend the truth while warning the public to guard their health and/or wallets. But of late we have also begun to see a backlash that has perhaps gone too far.  Usually these are popular press pieces, but are often quoting (or misquoting) professional sources. These stories are saying it is all nonsense, that there is no there there.  They point to the worst excesses, but then fail to note the real progress being made, and the products based on solid well thought out science.  In some cases, this might be termed selective focus.  In others, we suspect a degree of hubris.  Dictionary definition of hubris: excessive pride, arrogance, conceit, haughtiness, superiority, pomposity.  As you might suspect, we have been accused by our critics of being all these things.  Generally by those who we think fit the bill better than we ever could. Now, the pinnacle of hubris is reached when hypocrisy is added to the mix. Those who speak out of both sides of their mouths, usually simultaneously. We have seen a few of those as well. Which brings us back around to the core issue of truth.  How do you know what to believe, indeed who to believe, and when to stop believing.  We have written in the past about the epistemology of skin care.   We won’t repeat that discussion here. Instead, we propose the following.  Why don’t we simply examine the facts in evidence?  As physicians we rely on evidence-based medicine as our highest authority.  Let us sift through the medical literature with you.  Let’s lay out the facts, interpretation, theories, and arguments. Sort the wheat from the chaff. As we are quick to point out at every turn, we have our biases, just as you have yours.  If you think we are blinded by adoration for our own work, you can call us on it.  All comments are welcome, but those backed with evidence are most welcome. In this series we will look in depth at the application of stem cell science to dermatology and plastic surgery as well as to products in the beauty/aesthetic industry.  As a convenience will put them all under the heading of skin care. But they are distinctly different beasts, as we will discover. As is our habit, we are also interested in the backstory.   DrGeorge and I used to talk mainly to stem cell & biologic scientists. Now we find ourselves being invited to speak to plastic surgeons and dermatologists. While we are all M.D.s  it is of note that there are distinct differences between knowledge bases between these three disciplines in terms of knowledge base,  not to mention philosophy.  We have a lot to learn from one another. Stay tuned for the next episode.


  1. Michelle says:

    Howdy… I’d be interested to know your thought on the serum with Jeunesse Global that people are going bonkers over. I’m seeing it all over my newsfeed

    • Rosesweet says:

      Michelle, isn’t Jeunesse Global the makers of Luminesce, a pyramid marketing system? My friend bought the Eye treatment, she said it was way over priced , a temporary solution, and it left flakes all over her skin. Another purchased the world famous Serum, she said it made her skin feel great but other than that did nothing else. Anyway, they are a pyramid program like Amway , right?

    • drjohn says:

      People go bonkers over MLM’s not because of the product (which is typically underpowered and overpriced) but because they are marketing it and hoping to make money.

      • Dr. John, does this mean you would NEVER purchase a product from a Network Marketing company? I’ll be honest, I just joined my very first Direct Sales / Network Marketing / MLM (if you prefer) company and the controversy surrounding this platform seems to me to be of one knowing the difference between a Pyramid Scheme and a true Network Marketing company. They are super similar and yet completely different. Wiki describes a pyramid scheme as:

        “an unsustainable business model that involves promising participants payments or services, primarily for enrolling other people into the scheme, rather than supplying any real investment or sale of products or services to the public”

        I agree. However, if a company’s compensation plan is such that a distributor has more than one or two ways to generate income PLUS a product that “said” distributor LOVES and has the opportunity to share/sell “said” product, where’s the harm?

        I’ll tell you. It’s in how the distributor is “promised” a compensation by a sponsor. If they tell a prospect they ARE going to make a million in a month, that’s a Scheme! And that prospect is an idiot if they believe it!

        Entrepreneurship is HARD! Direct Sales/Network Marketing/MLM is even HARDER! I’ve been in commissioned sales ALL of my life. I’m no millionaire, but I’ve consistently contributed to our household income for 24 years. It’s NOT for everyone. I prefer to be paid based on how hard or not hard I work. 95% of t

        • drjohn says:

          Kim, network marketing can be done well, if it is completely above board and not full of tricks and traps. I agree with your statement “it’s in how the distributor is promised a compensation by a sponsor”. And how much the believer is required to put up to become part of the program. You sound like a sales dynamo. Maybe we need to recruit you to sell AnteAGE!

  2. debbie says:

    I check everyday for your opinion on Luminesce. Hopefully your review will come soon. I know that your not a fan of adipose mediated growth factors. Not sure why though.

    You have a great website.

    • drjohn says:

      Hi debbie, indeed, we are not fans of adipose-derived stem cell media for anti-agin skin care for one simple reason – it is inflammatory not anti-inflammatory. Which can be helpful for some things (e.g. in joints) but not for other things (wrinkles). Stem cell from different niches have different secretomes (the collection of proteins made by the cells and excreted in the cell culture media that is collected for use as a product). The adipose fat stem cell secretes a set of cytokines known as matrikines that are inflammatory. Like leptin (associated with breast cancer). For a more detailed explanation read our post on the subject of stem cell tissues of origin.

  3. Brandy says:

    I stumbled on to your blog today. I have vitiligo that i am treating with laser therapy twice a week. It is helping elbows and knees, but area around my eyes is not responding. Have you written blog post on vitiligo? Thanks!

    • drjohn says:

      Hi Brandy, we have not done a post on vitiligo, but its a good idea for a new topic. The pathophysiology is really quite interesting. Warfare between your immune cells and your melanocytes (pigment producing cells) in your skin. We have however seen a case of severe vitiligo (both arms) resulting from a severe staph infection, that did not respond to laser, but was greatly improved in response to human stem cell growth factors & cytokines (AnteAge). I think DrGeorge has some pictures of that. Maybe we can talk him into doing a post on that topic.

  4. Ellen Tartaglione says:

    I would love to hear your opinion on the product lines NeoCutis and Skinmedica, and the science behind their growth factors.
    Thank you

    • drjohn says:

      SkinMedica did some of the pioneering work showing the value of growth factors (from human cell cultures). That was more than a decade ago. NeoCutis sells a “me too” line with an ingredient they call PSP, which stands for Processed Skin Proteins. Now if you talk to one of their sales people at trade shows, or look at their materials, they go to great lengths to hide the fact that the cells they culture for these proteins are from the foreskin of an aborted fetus. Whatever your stance is on such things, I think they would do much better not trying to disguise it. It seems just plain dishonest. Deceitful. If these just came out with it clearly it would at least afford an opportunity for informed purchasing decisions to that half of all women who would philosophically oppose the use of fetal tissue in cosmetics, or who find the yucch factor to be too much. Now SkinMedica growth factors come from the same cell lines, but they don’t try to disguise it. At least they never did in talking to me.

      On the science & efficacy side, we work with human cell derived growth factors and cytokines as well, and appreciate the power these cell-to-cell communicating chemicals have on healing, regeneration and anti-aging. However, while the science has advanced a lot in the past decade, these products seems to be standing still. We and others now work with human stem cells, which have proven to be far more prolific at creating growth factors. The cells we work with (adult, no ethical worries) can product 10-50 times the concentrations that those fetal foreskin cells do. Further, stem cell science has advanced with the discovery of IPS (induced pluripotency). We now know that adult stem cells can be programmed backward to become more like fetal cells, if desired, without the ethical issues (or tendency to tumors) that is associated with embryonic stem cells. Further, we now understand all sorts of things about stem cell niches, cytokine cross talking, the two way street of differentiation, and because of that and some other things (like massive cell biology informatics databases) can coax stem cells in culture to product custom cocktails just right for addressing various skin (and hair) issues, including aging. A lot has happened, particularly in the last five years. We keep wondering why SkinMedica and Neocutis have ignored all this. The products, while efficacious, seem stale by comparison.

      • Alison says:

        Are the cells they culture for these proteins truly from the foreskin of an “aborted fetus”, or can they come from tissue donations post circumcision?

        Also, while the adult cells have been shown to be more prolific at creating growth factors, does this translate to a different % of growth factors actually used in the final products of embryonic vs adult stem cell derived products? I ask this because the actual cells are not used in the products (correct?).

        Thank you for creating such an informative site!

        • drjohn says:

          Alison: 1. Both fetal and newborn foreskins (depending on the company). 2. Excellent question – the secretome – the pattern of growth factors in conditioned medium of cells (fibroblasts and stem cell cultures) is different when the same cell is embryonic or fetal or adult. Even within the adult realm, the age of the donor does affect the secretome. 60 is not the same as 20. But there are also various ways of inducing cells to behave more “primitively” (roughly equivalent to younger). This includes changing variables such as oxygen levels, light, adding chemicals, co-culturing with other cells, and others. What we do is encourage the cells not just to act younger, but to act as though there was a job for them to do. Like heal a wound. That combination of stimuli leads to the message “act like a fetal cell healing a wound” which gets us to a mimic of the fetal (scarless) wound healing phenomenon.

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