The beauty market abounds with high-end creams and serums that claim the use of stem cells to rejuvenate aging skin.
Selling on the internet and at department stores like Nordstrom, these products promise "breakthrough" applications to plump, smooth, and "reverse visible signs of aging," and at least one product offers to create a "regenerative firming serum, moisturizer, and eye cream" from customers' own stem cells – for a whopping $1200.
The beauty industry is heavily hyping glimmers of the nascent field of stem cell therapy.
Steeped in clinical-sounding terms like "proteins and peptides from pluripotent stem cells," the marketing of these products evokes a dramatic restoration of youthfulness based on cutting-edge science. But the beauty industry is heavily hyping glimmers of the nascent field of stem cell therapy. So what is real and what's not? And is there in fact a way to harness the potential of stem cells in the service of beauty?
Plant vs. Human Stem Cells
Stem cells do indeed have tremendous promise for treating a wide range of diseases and conditions. The cells come from early-stage embryos or, more commonly, from umbilical cord blood or our own bodies. Embryonic stem cells are considered the body's "master" cells because they can develop into any of our several hundred cell types. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, reside in mature tissues and organs like the brain, bone marrow, and skin, and their versatility is more limited. As an internal repair system for many tissue types, they replenish sick, injured, and worn-out cells.
Nowadays, with some sophisticated chemical coaxing, adult stem cells can be returned to an embryonic-like blank state, with the ability to become any cell type that the body might need.
Beauty product manufacturers convey in their advertising that the rejuvenating power of these cells could hold the key to the fountain of youth. But there's something the manufacturers don't always tell you: their products do not typically use human stem cells.
"The whole concept of stem cells is intriguing to the public," says Tamara Griffiths, a consultant dermatologist for the British Skin Foundation. "But what these products contain is plant stem cells and, more commonly, chemicals that have been derived from plant stem cells."
The plant stem cells are cultured in the lab with special media to get them to produce signaling proteins and peptides, like cytokines and chemokines. These have been shown to be good for reducing inflammation and promoting healthy cell functioning, even if derived from plants. However, according to Griffiths, there are so many active ingredients in these products that it's hard to say just what role each one of them plays. We do know that their ability to replenish human stem cells is extremely limited, and the effects of plant stem cells on human cells are unproven.
"...any cosmetic that is advertised to be anti-aging due to plant stem cells at this time is about as effective as all the skin creams without stem cells."
Whether products containing plant cell-derived ingredients work better than conventional skin products is unknown because these products are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and may rest on dubious, even more or less nonexistent, research. Cosmetics companies have conducted most of the research and the exact formulas they devise are considered proprietary information. They have no incentive to publish their research findings, and they don't have to meet standards imposed by the FDA unless they start using human cells in their products.
"There are biological limits to what you can do with plant cells in the first place," says Griffiths. "No plant stem cell is going to morph into a human skin cell no matter what magic medium you immerse it in. Nor is a plant cell likely to stimulate the production of human stem cells if applied to the skin."
According to Sarah Baucus, a cell biologist, for any type of stem cell to be of any use whatsoever, the cells must be alive. The processing needed to incorporate living cells into any type of cream or serum would inevitably kill them, rendering them useless. The splashy marketing of these products suggests that results may be drastic, but none of these creams is likely to produce the kind of rejuvenating effect that would be on par with a facelift or several other surgical or dermatological procedures.
"Plant stem cell therapy needs to move in the right direction to implement its inherent potential in skin care," researchers wrote in a 2017 paper in the journal Future Science OA. "This might happen in the next 20 years but any cosmetic that is advertised to be anti-aging due to plant stem cells at this time is about as effective as all the skin creams without stem cells."
From Beauty Counter to Doctor's Clinic
Where do you turn if you still want to harness the power of stem cells to reinvigorate the skin? Is there a legitimate treatment using human cells? The answer is possibly, but for that you have to switch from the Nordstrom cosmetics counter to a clinic with a lab, where plastic surgeons work with specialists who culture and manipulate living cells.
Plastic surgeons are experts in wound healing, a process in which stem cells play a prominent role. Doctors have long used the technique of taking fat from the body and injecting it into hollowed-out or depressed areas of the face to fill in injuries, correct wrinkles, and improve the face's curvature. Lipotransfer, or the harvesting of body fat and injecting it into the face, has been around for many years in traditional plastic surgery clinics. In recent years, some plastic surgeons have started to cull stem cells from fat. One procedure that does just that is called cell-assisted lipotransfer, or CAL.
In CAL, adipose tissue, or fat, is harvested by liposuction, usually from the lower abdomen. Fat contains stem cells that can differentiate into several cell types, including skin, muscle, cartilage, and bone. Fat tissue has an especially stem cell-rich layer. These cells are then mixed with some regular fat, making in effect a very stem cell-rich fat solution, right in the doctor's office. The process of manipulating the fat cells takes about 90 to 110 minutes, and then the solution is ready to be injected into the skin, to fill in the lips, the cheeks, and the nasolabial folds, or the deep folds around the nose and mouth.
Unlike regular fat, which is often injected into the face, some experts claim that the cell-enriched fat has better, longer-lasting results. The tissue graft grows its own blood vessels, an advantage that may lead to a more long-lasting graft – though the research is mixed, with some studies showing they do and other studies showing the complete opposite.
For almost all stem cell products on the market today in the U.S., it is not yet known whether they are safe or effective, despite how they are marketed.
One of the pioneers in CAL, a plastic surgeon in Brazil named Dr. Aris Sterodimas, says that the stem cells secrete growth factors that rejuvenate the skin -- like the plant stem cells that are used in topical creams and serums. Except that these cells are human stem cells and hence have inherently more potential in the human body.
Note that CAL doesn't actually result in large numbers of fresh, new replacement cells, as might be imagined. It's simply fat tissue treated to make it richer in stem cells, to have more of the growth-inducing proteins and peptides delivered to the dermis layer of the skin.
Sterodimas works alongside a tissue engineer to provide CAL in his clinic. He uses it as a way to rebuild soft tissues in people disfigured by accidents or diseases, or who are suffering the after-effects of radiation treatments for cancer.
Plastic surgeons get plenty of these patients. But how widespread is CAL for beauty purposes? Sterodimas says that he regularly performs the procedure for Brazilians, and it's widely available in Europe and Japan. In the U.S., the procedure hasn't taken off because there is no FDA approval for the various methods used by different doctors and clinics. A few major academic centers in the U.S. offer the treatment on a clinical trials basis and there are several trials ongoing.
But there is a downside to all lipotransfers: the transplanted fat will eventually be absorbed by the body. Even the cell-enriched fat has a limited lifespan before reabsorption. That means if you like the cosmetic results of CAL, you'll have to repeat the treatment about every two years to maintain the plumping, firming, and smoothing effects on the skin. The results of CAL are "superior to the results of laser treatments and other plastic surgery interventions, though the effect is not as dramatic as a facelift," says Sterodimas.
For almost all stem cell products on the market today in the U.S., it is not yet known whether they are safe or effective, despite how they are marketed. There are around 700 clinics in the U.S. offering stem cell treatments and up to 20,000 people have received these therapies. However, the only FDA-approved stem cell treatments use cells from bone marrow or cord blood to treat cancers of the blood and bone marrow. Safety concerns have prompted the FDA to announce increased oversight of stem cell clinics.
As for CAL, most of the clinical trials so far have been focused on using it for breast reconstruction after mastectomy, and results are mixed. Experts warn that the procedure has yet to be proven safe as well as effective. It's important to remember that this newborn science is in the early stages of research.
One question that has also not been definitively settled is whether the transplanted stem cells may give rise to tumors — a risk that is ever-present any time stem cells are used. More research is required to assess the long-term safety and effectiveness of these treatments.
Given the lack of uniform industry standards, one can easily end up at a clinic that overpromises what it can deliver.
In the journal Plastic Reconstruction Surgery in 2014, Adrian McArdle and a team of Stanford University plastic surgeons examined the common claims of CAL's "stem cell facelifts" being offered by clinics across the world. McArdle and his team write: "…the marketplace is characterized by direct-to-consumer corporate medicine strategies that are characterized by unsubstantiated, and sometimes fraudulent claims, that put our patients at risk." Given the lack of uniform industry standards, one can easily end up at a clinic that overpromises what it can deliver.
But according to McArdle, further research on CAL, including clinical trials, is proceeding apace. It's possible that as more research on the potential of stem cells accrues, many of the technical hurdles will be crossed.
If you decide to try CAL in a research or clinical setting, be forewarned. You will be taking part in a young science, with many unknown questions. However, the next time someone offers to sell you stem cells in a jar, you'll know what you're paying for.
Lori Tipton's life was a cascade of trauma that even a soap opera would not dare inflict upon a character: a mentally unstable family; a brother who died of a drug overdose; the shocking discovery of the bodies of two persons her mother had killed before turning the gun on herself; the devastation of Hurricane Katrina that savaged her hometown of New Orleans; being raped by someone she trusted; and having an abortion. She suffered from severe PTSD.
“My life was filled with anxiety and hypervigilance,” she says. “I was constantly afraid and had mood swings, panic attacks, insomnia, intrusive thoughts and suicidal ideation. I tried to take my life more than once.” She was fortunate to be able to access multiple mental health services, “And while at times some of these modalities would relieve the symptoms, nothing really lasted and nothing really address the core trauma.”
Then in 2018 Tipton enrolled in a clinical trial that combined intense sessions of psychotherapy with limited use of Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, a drug classified as a psychedelic and commonly known as ecstasy or Molly. The regimen was arduous; 1-2 hour preparation sessions, three sessions where MDMA was used, which lasted 6-8 hours, and lengthy sessions afterward to process and integrate the experiences. Two therapists were with her every moment of the three-month program that totaled more than 40 hours.
“It was clear to me that [the therapists] weren't going to heal me, that I was going to have to do the work for myself, but that they were there to completely support my process,” she says. “But the effects of MDMA were really undeniable for me. I felt embodied in a way that I hadn't in years. PTSD had robbed me of the ability to feel safe in my own body.”
Tipton doesn’t think the therapy completely cured her PTSD. “But when I completed the trial in 2018, I no longer qualified for the diagnosis, and I still don't qualify for the diagnosis today,” she told an April workshop on psychedelics as mental health treatment by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, or NASEM.
Rick Doblin has been a catalyst behind much of the contemporary research into psychedelics. Prior to the DEA clamp down, the Boston psychotherapist had seen that MDMA and other psychedelics could benefit some of his patients where other measures had failed. He immediately organized efforts to question the drug rescheduling but to little avail. In 1986, he created the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which slowly laid the scientific foundation for clinical trials, including the one that Tipton joined, using psychedelics to treat mental health conditions.
Now, only slowly, have researchers been able to explore the power of these drugs to treat a broad spectrum of severely debilitating mental health conditions, including trauma, depression, and PTSD, where other available treatments proved inadequate.
“Psychedelic psychotherapy is an attempt to go after the root causes of the problems with just a relatively few administrations, as contrasted to most of the psychiatric drugs used today that are mostly just reducing symptoms and are meant to be taken on a daily basis,” Doblin said in a 2019 TED Talk. Most of these drugs can have broad effect but “some are probably more effective than others for certain conditions,” he added in a recent interview with Leaps.org. Comparative head-to-head studies of psychedelic therapies simply have not been conducted.
Their mechanisms of action are poorly understood and can vary between drugs, but it is generally believed that psychedelics change the activity of neurons so that the brain processes information differently, says Katrin Preller, a neuropsychologist at the University of Zurich. A recent important study in Nature Medicine by Richard Daws and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain and found that “functional networks became more functionally interconnected and flexible after psilocybin treatment…implying that psilocybin's antidepressant action may depend on a global increase in brain network integration.”
Rosalind Watts, a clinical investigator at the Imperial College in London, believes there is “an overestimation of the importance of the drug and an underestimation of the importance of the [therapeutic] context” in psychedelic research. “It is unethical to provide the drug without the other,” she says. Doblin notes that “psychotherapy outcomes research demonstrates that the therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the patients is the single most predictive factor of outcomes. [It is] trust and the sense of safety, the willingness to go into difficult spaces” that makes clinical breakthroughs possible with the drug.
Excitement and Challenges
Recurrent themes expressed at the NASEM workshop were exciting glimpses of the potential for psychedelics to treat mental health conditions combined with the challenges of realizing those potentials. A recent review paper found evidence that using psychedelics can help with treating a variety of common mental illnesses, but the paper could identify only 14 clinical trials of classic psychedelics published since 1991. Much of the reason is that the drugs are not patentable and so the pharmaceutical industry has no interest in investing in expensive clinical trials to bring them to market. MAPS has raised about $135 million over its 36-year history to conduct such research, says Doblin, the vast majority of it from individual donors and none from foundations.
The workshop participants’ views also were colored by the history of drug crackdowns and a fear that research might easily be shut down in the future. There was great concern that use of psychedelics should be confined to clinical trials with high safety and ethical standards, instead of doctors and patients experimenting on their own. “We need to get it right this time,” says Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at the UCLA School of Medicine. But restricting access to psychedelics will become even more difficult now that Oregon and several cities have acted to decriminalize possession and use of many of these drugs.
The experience with ketamine also troubled Grob. He is hoping to “mitigate the rush of rapid commercialization” that occurred with that drug. Ketamine technically is not a psychedelic though it does share some of their potentially euphoric properties. In 2019, soon after the FDA approved a form of ketamine with a limited label indication to treat depression, for profit clinics sprang up promoting off label use of the drug for psychiatric conditions where there was little clinical evidence of efficacy. He fears the same thing will happen when true psychedelics are made available.
If these therapies are approved, access to them is likely to be a problem. The drugs themselves are cheap but the accompanying therapy is not, and there is a shortage of trained psychotherapists. Mental health services often are not adequately covered by health insurance, while the poor and people of color suffer additional burdens of inadequate access. Doblin is committed to health care equity by training additional providers and by investigating whether some of the preparatory and integration sessions might be handled in a group setting. He says it is important that the legal aspects of psychedelics also be addressed so that patients “don't have to go underground” in order to receive this care.
As a type 2 diabetic, Michael Snyder has long been interested in how blood sugar levels vary from one person to another in response to the same food, and whether a more personalized approach to nutrition could help tackle the rapidly cascading levels of diabetes and obesity in much of the western world.
Eight years ago, Snyder, who directs the Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine at Stanford University, decided to put his theories to the test. In the 2000s continuous glucose monitoring, or CGM, had begun to revolutionize the lives of diabetics, both type 1 and type 2. Using spherical sensors which sit on the upper arm or abdomen – with tiny wires that pierce the skin – the technology allowed patients to gain real-time updates on their blood sugar levels, transmitted directly to their phone.
It gave Snyder an idea for his research at Stanford. Applying the same technology to a group of apparently healthy people, and looking for ‘spikes’ or sudden surges in blood sugar known as hyperglycemia, could provide a means of observing how their bodies reacted to an array of foods.
“We discovered that different foods spike people differently,” he says. “Some people spike to pasta, others to bread, others to bananas, and so on. It’s very personalized and our feeling was that building programs around these devices could be extremely powerful for better managing people’s glucose.”
Unbeknown to Snyder at the time, thousands of miles away, a group of Israeli scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science were doing exactly the same experiments. In 2015, they published a landmark paper which used CGM to track the blood sugar levels of 800 people over several days, showing that the biological response to identical foods can vary wildly. Like Snyder, they theorized that giving people a greater understanding of their own glucose responses, so they spend more time in the normal range, may reduce the prevalence of type 2 diabetes.
The commercial potential of such apps is clear, but the underlying science continues to generate intriguing findings.
“At the moment 33 percent of the U.S. population is pre-diabetic, and 70 percent of those pre-diabetics will become diabetic,” says Snyder. “Those numbers are going up, so it’s pretty clear we need to do something about it.”
Fast forward to 2022,and both teams have converted their ideas into subscription-based dietary apps which use artificial intelligence to offer data-informed nutritional and lifestyle recommendations. Snyder’s spinoff, January AI, combines CGM information with heart rate, sleep, and activity data to advise on foods to avoid and the best times to exercise. DayTwo–a start-up which utilizes the findings of Weizmann Institute of Science–obtains microbiome information by sequencing stool samples, and combines this with blood glucose data to rate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods for a particular person.
“CGMs can be used to devise personalized diets,” says Eran Elinav, an immunology professor and microbiota researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in addition to serving as a scientific consultant for DayTwo. “However, this process can be cumbersome. Therefore, in our lab we created an algorithm, based on data acquired from a big cohort of people, which can accurately predict post-meal glucose responses on a personal basis.”
The commercial potential of such apps is clear. DayTwo, who market their product to corporate employers and health insurers rather than individual consumers, recently raised $37 million in funding. But the underlying science continues to generate intriguing findings.
Last year, Elinav and colleagues published a study on 225 individuals with pre-diabetes which found that they achieved better blood sugar control when they followed a personalized diet based on DayTwo’s recommendations, compared to a Mediterranean diet. The journal Cell just released a new paper from Snyder’s group which shows that different types of fibre benefit people in different ways.
“The idea is you hear different fibres are good for you,” says Snyder. “But if you look at fibres they’re all over the map—it’s like saying all animals are the same. The responses are very individual. For a lot of people [a type of fibre called] arabinoxylan clearly reduced cholesterol while the fibre inulin had no effect. But in some people, it was the complete opposite.”
Eight years ago, Stanford's Michael Snyder began studying how continuous glucose monitors could be used by patients to gain real-time updates on their blood sugar levels, transmitted directly to their phone.
The Snyder Lab, Stanford Medicine
Because of studies like these, interest in precision nutrition approaches has exploded in recent years. In January, the National Institutes of Health announced that they are spending $170 million on a five year, multi-center initiative which aims to develop algorithms based on a whole range of data sources from blood sugar to sleep, exercise, stress, microbiome and even genomic information which can help predict which diets are most suitable for a particular individual.
“There's so many different factors which influence what you put into your mouth but also what happens to different types of nutrients and how that ultimately affects your health, which means you can’t have a one-size-fits-all set of nutritional guidelines for everyone,” says Bruce Y. Lee, professor of health policy and management at the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health.
With the falling costs of genomic sequencing, other precision nutrition clinical trials are choosing to look at whether our genomes alone can yield key information about what our diets should look like, an emerging field of research known as nutrigenomics.
The ASPIRE-DNA clinical trial at Imperial College London is aiming to see whether particular genetic variants can be used to classify individuals into two groups, those who are more glucose sensitive to fat and those who are more sensitive to carbohydrates. By following a tailored diet based on these sensitivities, the trial aims to see whether it can prevent people with pre-diabetes from developing the disease.
But while much hope is riding on these trials, even precision nutrition advocates caution that the field remains in the very earliest of stages. Lars-Oliver Klotz, professor of nutrigenomics at Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena, Germany, says that while the overall goal is to identify means of avoiding nutrition-related diseases, genomic data alone is unlikely to be sufficient to prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes.
“Genome data is rather simple to acquire these days as sequencing techniques have dramatically advanced in recent years,” he says. “However, the predictive value of just genome sequencing is too low in the case of obesity and prediabetes.”
Others say that while genomic data can yield useful information in terms of how different people metabolize different types of fat and specific nutrients such as B vitamins, there is a need for more research before it can be utilized in an algorithm for making dietary recommendations.
“I think it’s a little early,” says Eileen Gibney, a professor at University College Dublin. “We’ve identified a limited number of gene-nutrient interactions so far, but we need more randomized control trials of people with different genetic profiles on the same diet, to see whether they respond differently, and if that can be explained by their genetic differences.”
Some start-ups have already come unstuck for promising too much, or pushing recommendations which are not based on scientifically rigorous trials. The world of precision nutrition apps was dubbed a ‘Wild West’ by some commentators after the founders of uBiome – a start-up which offered nutritional recommendations based on information obtained from sequencing stool samples –were charged with fraud last year. The weight-loss app Noom, which was valued at $3.7 billion in May 2021, has been criticized on Twitter by a number of users who claimed that its recommendations have led to them developed eating disorders.
With precision nutrition apps marketing their technology at healthy individuals, question marks have also been raised about the value which can be gained through non-diabetics monitoring their blood sugar through CGM. While some small studies have found that wearing a CGM can make overweight or obese individuals more motivated to exercise, there is still a lack of conclusive evidence showing that this translates to improved health.
However, independent researchers remain intrigued by the technology, and say that the wealth of data generated through such apps could be used to help further stratify the different types of people who become at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
“CGM not only enables a longer sampling time for capturing glucose levels, but will also capture lifestyle factors,” says Robert Wagner, a diabetes researcher at University Hospital Düsseldorf. “It is probable that it can be used to identify many clusters of prediabetic metabolism and predict the risk of diabetes and its complications, but maybe also specific cardiometabolic risk constellations. However, we still don’t know which forms of diabetes can be prevented by such approaches and how feasible and long-lasting such self-feedback dietary modifications are.”
Snyder himself has now been wearing a CGM for eight years, and he credits the insights it provides with helping him to manage his own diabetes. “My CGM still gives me novel insights into what foods and behaviors affect my glucose levels,” he says.
He is now looking to run clinical trials with his group at Stanford to see whether following a precision nutrition approach based on CGM and microbiome data, combined with other health information, can be used to reverse signs of pre-diabetes. If it proves successful, January AI may look to incorporate microbiome data in future.
“Ultimately, what I want to do is be able take people’s poop samples, maybe a blood draw, and say, ‘Alright, based on these parameters, this is what I think is going to spike you,’ and then have a CGM to test that out,” he says. “Getting very predictive about this, so right from the get go, you can have people better manage their health and then use the glucose monitor to help follow that.”