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January 12, 2011

Stem cells in a bottle

In an article in the Globe and Mail this past weekend, reporter Carolyn Abraham provided an interesting and under-reported glimpse into the cosmetics industry use of stem cells to market their products. She notes:

"In science, 'stem cell' has been the buzzword of the decade, and with good reason: The body's master cells are a protean dream, immortal chameleons capable of sprouting into the various tissue types that make up a human.

Scientists speak of one day using them to conquer incurable diseases and grow new body parts when old ones wear out.

But researchers still have much to learn. Not least of which is how to keep the cells from growing out of control, into cancerous tumours.

Yet in the direct-to-consumer world of cosmetics and dubious cures, stem cells have already made the leap from lab to market.

From Beijing to Beverly Hills and Manila to Mississauga, private clinics, companies and high-priced spas are pushing stem-cell creams, supplements and procedures for every freckle under the sun."

Concern about bogus stem cell treatments is not new. The International Society for Stem Cell Research launched a web site last year that details such concerns and attempts to provide information that patients and consumers can use to safeguard their own health. It will be interesting to see if such efforts can impact media reporting and public opinion on this topic, which tends to focus primarily on patient testimonials over issues pertaining to policy, efficacy and risk (this will be the topic of an upcoming blog post). 

While it may be easy to dismiss the goals of cosmetics industry as essentially frivolous, there is a cross-over into health care. Research on skin, aging, nerves and other tissues has the potential to alleviate symptoms for those afflicted by severe allergies, wounds and diseases such as progeria. The concerns, as was pointed out in Nature Reports, are efficacy, a lack of peer review and perhaps more importantly, the willingness of companies to capitalize on unwitting consumers willing to trade hundreds of dollars for magic in a bottle.


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