Stem the tide

Stem the tide

It’s been touted as the technology of the future but ongoing stem cell research maintains that future could still be a while away

By Dr Bell R Eapen

Published: Fri 25 Nov 2011, 10:35 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 3:11 AM

Recently, a pharma-ceutical distributor approached me with the next big thing in pigmentation control. Their product used the stem cell technology, the technology of the future. Though I have heard a lot about stem cell technology in anti-wrinkle creams and hair restoration, it was my first exposure to a stem cell fairness cream.

Stem cell technology, like most other high profile technologies of recent times, has been met with both scepticism and excitement. From a consumer perspective, an understanding of the current scenario in stem cell research could save you from a deep dent in your pocket.

Stem cells in the body retain the ability to develop into several cell types during growth and development. Some cells may remain beyond the developmental stage and serve as an internal repair mechanism. Embryonic stem cells are capable of producing virtually any type of cells while adult stem cells produce only cell types of a single tissue. The opportunities of artificially induced or introduced stem cells are many and it has even led to the formation of a distinct medical specialty called regenerative medicine.

However like many other expanding fields of scientific inquiry, research on stem cells raises scientific questions as rapidly as it generates new possibilities. Suffice to say that the technology to introduce a suitable stem cell into a site where it is needed, control its differentiation into the required cell types and finally to prevent it from becoming cancerous has still not been perfected.

The promoters of stem cell technology in skin care would make us believe that stem cells actually penetrate our skin and replenish lost tissue due to ageing. But human embryonic stem cells are banned from cosmetic usage. The stem cell creams actually contain plant stem cells. Plant stem cells can neither penetrate human skin easily nor generate human tissue.

They may however enhance human stem cell production and secrete certain chemicals that can stimulate growth of skin fibres lost due to ageing process. The most popular source of stem cells for creams is a variety of apple with long shelf life. Researchers have demonstrated that they are capable of producing a protective layer of plant stem cells on the surface when cut. Yet another popular source of cloned stem cells is our own date palms, due to its ability to thrive in the desert, in the driest areas, and be able to remain hydrated and conserve water.

Though theoretically there is potential for these creams to work, there is no experimental evidence to substantiate any of the above claims. However some patients do notice improvement with these creams that could just be a “placebo effect”.

There are certain well established uses of stem cells in skin care, especially in skin grafts, which can help burn victims and those suffering from non-healing ulcers. Stem cell technology can augment the efficacy of skin grafts making the wounds heal faster and better.

Yet another promising area of stem cell research is hair restoration. Hair loss can be quite frustrating and embarrassing for men and women. There is no established effective medical treatment for the common types of hair loss. A study at the University of Pennsylvania found that the action of stem cells could restore hair growth. Though the research is complicated, the results are promising and the technology may become available for public use in the near future.

Transplanted stem cells can remain in the proliferating stage in the human body for many years. So careful monitoring may be needed for those who decide to utilise these technologies in the early stages. The cosmetic industry thrives on the promise of younger-looking, wrinkle-free skin. The technology is promising, but at present we do not have enough evidence to support the claims.

(Dr Bell R Eapen is a Dubai-based specialist dermatologist with Kaya Skin Clinic. Write to him at

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