Imagine, you’ve just hit your calf and now your muscle hurts. You rack your brains and ponder over ways to speed up your recovery, and suddenly it just hits you. You go to a nearby butcher’s, buy a giant chop and attach it to your leg. After all, a calf is meat, so is a chop, therefore there’s every indication to suggest that a leg of pork will have a healing impact on your limb. Does it make any sense?
Such visualizations enter my mind when I think about plant stem cell creams. As you’ve probably noticed by now, I’m not an ardent fan of them. Today we will discuss why.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells have two unique features – they’re capable of dividing themselves endlessly. Secondly, their daughter cells can differentiate into other cell types. In an adult organism their role is to replenish lost tissues and produce specific cell types that wear out, deteriorate and die. Loads of diversified cells in our body haven’t got the potential of dividing and need a constant replenishing from a separate source. Erythrocytes, epidermal or epithelial cells serve as an example here.
Stem cells can regenerate tissues
After all, that’s what they were made for. Proliferation (cell growth) and tissue renewal capabilities of stem cells are grand. Numerous experiments have been conducted on mice subjected to strong radiation. Its amount was sufficient to destroy all blood stem cells. In normal conditions animals would soon die of anaemia and/or infections that couldn’t be fought back. However, if few (!) hematopoietic cells (which give rise to blood cells) are transplanted, the mouse will completely rebuilt its blood cell population. Bone marrow transplantation in leukaemia patients is roughly the same process, putting it simply.
Research on stem cells is a great hope for regenerative medicine development. Embryonic stem cells (ESC) taken directly from embryos or umbilical blood are of major importance in this context. Their uniqueness lies in their ability to diversify into any cell type in an adult organism (which won’t happen in case of stem cells of an adult organism, as they have already been determined to develop into specific types of cells). ESC can be used to renew damaged tissues and – as long as we use our own cells – are well tolerated (such transplant doesn’t carry the risk of rejection). Scientists use ESC for the treatment of damaged spinal cord, Parkinson disease and other neurodegenerative conditions, blindness or type 1 diabetes in mice.
So what’s the problem?
Since this text has, so far, been a praise of stem cells, why putting them into creams is senseless? Well, there’re at least few reasons.
Firstly, a stem cell won’t work unless it is alive. In order to keep cells living, after isolating them from an organism, it would be necessary to keep them under right conditions in vitro which involves growing them in culture, supplying the substrate with nutritients, removing harmful metabolites, maintaining a proper pH level and temperature, preventing access of microorganisms as well controlling a whole lot of other factors. Do you think that a cream jar is the best place for setting up a cell culture? Can its contents serve as a growth medium for stem cells? Sorry, it cannot.
Dead stem cells are sadly nothing more than a heap of gooey pulp with no interesting properties. It is true that by-products of a stem cell decomposition have certain antioxidant properties, contain vitamins and proteins, and therefore have a positive effect on the skin, except that probably most of them can be found in other creams. Cheaper and in more stable form.
The next thing is that moisturizers usually contain plant stem cells. Despite from being cheap and easy, isolating rice, apple or grain stem cells doesn’t raise any ethical doubts. But humans are no plants. Our organism will not be able to adopt stem cells of a different species (there’s every likelihood of rejection even if they came from another Homo sapiens representative) – our immune system spots such an intruder and destroys it. On one hand, it is not good, as it proves that the good deal of money we spent on the cream has probably gone to waste because the cream won’t do what it is said to. On the other hand, thank goodness, who knows what would happen if our skins started acting like plant meristems and produced cells ready to develop into stems or roots. There’s one more reason we really wouldn’t want a successful implantation of stem cells – in some cases implanting stem cells into an organism leads to cancer development.
Descriptions found on such moisturizing skin care products suggest that the miraculous characteristics of plant stem cells can yet be somehow transferred onto their users. How would this happen? What is the intraspecies channel for transmitting specific characteristics of cell types? How would my skin cells use genetic information on how to build a root or a leaf? What the hell does it even need this info for? I’ve got no idea. What’s even better is that producers of such creams haven’t got it either. The cosmetics industry – unlike pharmaceutics, medicine or even food industry – is still poorly restricted by legal norms, which allows companies to juggle information and catchphrases, as well as declare effects with no scientific support.
A little vigilance will do us no harm!