Stem Cells – Myth or Medical Breakthrough?

Written by Danné Montague-King, L.E., founder of DMK-Danne Montague-King

Years ago, stem cells and growth factors became hero ingredients in skin care formulations. Some brands have claimed, that plant-based stem cells have helped reproduce human stem cells and growth factors, directly changing the behavior of human DNA.



Growth factors are proteins that regulate cellular growth, proliferation, and differentiation under controlled conditions, maintaining healthy skin structure. They are secreted by all cell types that make up the epidermis and dermis, including keratinocytes, fibroblasts, and melanocytes. Growth factors are naturally occurring regulatory molecules that stimulate cell and tissue function through influencing cell differentiation via changing their biochemical activity. They regulate the rate of proliferation (certain beta glucans are in this class), enhancing dendrite strength in the Langerhans cells and turning the macrophages at the end of each dendrite into a weapon of mass destruction against free radicals, bacterial attack, viruses, and parasitic invasion.

Medical stem cell implantation plays a role as back-up support to implanted cells and potential autoimmune rejection. There have currently been many successes aspirating fresh stem cells from hipbones and re-injecting them into injured areas, such as a torn meniscus. Mesenchymal stem cells are cells that can develop into distinct mesenchymal tissue, such as bone, tendons, muscles, adipose tissue cartilage, nerve tissue, blood, and blood cells.

However, this success is a far cry from the use of stem cells in creams, serums, and other skin care products. It is a common misconception that plant stem cells in a cream or gel serum work with the body’s own stem cells. As a way of inflicting miniature wounds, technicians scratch cultured plant tissue. This damage stimulates the plant’s stem cells to react and heal, inducing the formation of new stem cells on the wounded surfaces. After slow replication and division on the outside, new cells fashion a large accumulation of colorless cells known as callous. Cells composing the callous divide into cells that do not carry the specific features of individuated plant cells. This callous is used as an ingredient in facial creams. Downstream-differentiated plant cells possess the biochemical machinery required to produce the myriad of substances derived from plants that have pharmaceutical or other value (including quinine, digitalis, and aloe vera).

pic1Plant totipotent stem cells do not produce substances capable of affecting other cells. Callouses are forced upon living plant stems to encourage new baby cells, harvested, and then put into creams as “stem cell therapy.” Even rubbing human stem cells on the skin would never work; they would have to be alive in the product despite any effective delivery mechanism. Plant stem cells have nothing to do with the human genetic blue print. There has been some argument that these callouses or other plant stem cell extracts have many micronutrients that benefit the skin. This belief is no truer than other aspects of a plant, which includes roots, leaves, buds, flowers, and fruit.

A potent botanical offering into skin cells that evoke an ionic transfer, a cellular impact of a physiological change (a reverse to homeostasis), depends largely on where the plant is grown, how it is prepared for extraction, how it is processed into a product with bio-availability that is still active, and the delivery system into the skin.

Cosmetic manufacturers should look at what phytochemicals that skin cells respond positively to, and what they recognize, and how they can influence and support growth factors and life cycle of cells. Even if plant stem cells did have a biological energy kick start, many research papers have concluded that stem cells are just too large to penetrate the lipid barrier of the epidermis, even if they could be somehow kept alive in a cream or serum.

There is, however, hope in stem cell research for total skin revision. Every time people do any kind of aggressive exfoliation, they are calling upon stem cells in the healing process. This process, however, is normally not very well-controlled or targeted, and the healing is spotty or focused on only the areas of the epidermis where trauma is the most virulent. Rebecca James Gadberry’s dissertation on Epigenetics points this out.

pic1Using a person’s own skin stem cells, of which there is a rich supply of at any age located in two areas of the skin, requires getting to them with minimum inflammatory response; getting the stem cells out of their “house” and on a genetic pathway to another “house” in the skin, such as a keratinocyte or a fibroblast cell; and maintaining the differentiation over a period of time – 47 days at least – until fresh epidermal tissue is maximized.

There are many types of stem cells with a variety of special functions. All of them are interconnected, but organ specific. The two main types of stem cells are embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells, such as somatic stem cells. Other sub types, such as induced pluripotent stem cells, are laboratory produced by reprogramming adult cells to express embryonic stem cell characteristics. In skin, tissue-specific (or somatic) stem cells are more specialized than embryonic stem cells. Typically, these types of stem cells can generate different cell types for the specific tissue or organ in which they live.

This information is the tip of a very large iceberg, but all skin care professionals arm themselves with the available, yet ever changing, knowledge that, in turn, will make cosmetic manufacturers more conscious of what is real and what is buzzword phony!

The cells of the body are not programmed to die easily – they are programmed to stay alive, if possible, given the right maintenance and environmental surroundings.

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