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Turning stem cells into snake oil Add to ...

It was the ZsaZsa Luxe Rejuvenation Crème that tempted me.

I'd been up half the night with a restless toddler, and bags the size of Hungary sagged under my eyes. I wanted to believe ZsaZsa would “restore that youthful 24-kt gold glow,” as it claimed, and “infiltrate deep into your cellular levels like never before and reverse the effects of aging.”

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It was “formulated by Top Scientists in France,” using “only the most exclusive BioMarine Technology, Sea Fennel, Swiss Apple, Grape Stem Cells, the World's Most Exclusive Peptide, Antioxidants, Caviar and Black Pearl … helping kick-start your skin's natural stem cells to halt that aging process!”

A lotion to kick-start my stem cells? A French lotion of caviar, pearls and grape stem cells – would they grow in bunches on my face? I snapped out of it: In a dozen years of reporting on stem-cell research, I'd never heard they could come in a jar.

But the pitch was only one of a growing number I'd seen recently, peddling the power of stem cells to make a younger me.

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.

Claiming to use patients' own stem cells, these purveyors offer stem-cell facelifts as well as stem cells for baldness, eyelash extensions, buttocks augmentations, breast enhancements and penis enlargements (girth, not length).

In a Mississauga clinic, even aging, ailing pets are sold the possibility of youthful pep.

It “has become a global problem,” says Douglas Sipp, who monitors alleged stem-cell treatments at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan. There's no proof the treatments really use stem cells at all, he says, or that doing so would be safe or effective: “To the best of my knowledge none of these has a basis in scientific evidence.”

The established facts about stem cells are amazing enough: They can be grown into a tooth, brain cells, a bladder or heart tissue that beats in a dish. Cells from a single infant foreskin can be grown into a sheet of skin the length of three football fields. Salvaged from the eyes of dead people, stem cells have enabled blind mice to see.

“It's that fantastic, the potential,” says Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at the Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology, which is about to launch the first human embryonic-stem-cell trial to treat blindness.

The trouble is, he says, “The public can't discern what's real. Not even scientists can discern. So, yes, it's very easy to take advantage of that.”

Stem cells, the Britney Spears of modern biology

This is very awkward for a field that has had an image problem from the get-go. From the moment stem cells were plucked in their most powerful form from an embryo in 1997, scientists have played up their potential while social conservatives denounced them.

The work has become entangled with debates on abortion and cloning and, with Korean researcher Hwang Woo-Suk's indictment in 2006, linked to one of the most high-profile cases of scientific fraud.

So much hype, so much scandal – stem cells have become the Britney Spears of biology.

And the spotlight is bound to intensify. Machines are making their way to the North American market that allow for the fast extraction of adult stem cells from a patient's fat tissue, opening the door for the cells to be added to any product or procedure.

Meanwhile, regulators are still finding their footing in this murky, fast-moving field.

“Some of the legitimate science is going to be under a bar of fake pressure,” says Mick Bhatia, director of stem-cell and cancer research at McMaster University in Hamilton.

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