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Public misconceptions about stem cells throw a wrinkle into scientific progress
Recently, I visited the optometrist for my yearly eye exam and to obtain new eyeglasses and contact lenses. When the good doctor came to fetch me from the waiting room, he said, "come on back, young lady," but glancing from me to the information listed on my chart, he quipped, "ooh, you're no young lady." (I come from a long line of Southern women who taught me how to grind my teeth and kill such socially inept creatures with kindness.)
A few weeks later, I elected to take a telephone survey about political candidates, and when the survey reached the demographic portion of the inquiry, I waited, rather impatiently, for my age group to be announced. When did I get so far down the list?
As I creep ever nearer to my 40s, I'm assessing the options available to me that will somehow preserve the fountain of youth—because as the great Dolly Parton warned in the popular 1990s film "Steel Magnolias," "Time marches on, and sooner or later, you realize it is marchin' across your face." I'm educated enough to know that no lotion or potion is going to rewind my physical clock, but if there is anything I can do to protect and preserve, there's no harm in that, right?
Well, it looks like a bevy of rather creative skin care manufacturers seem to think so. A quick look around the "anti-aging" skin-care market yields dozens of creams, serums, masks and other products that claim to turn back the hands of time—via the use of stem cells.
The marketing tactics employed by the "laboratories" responsible for these dermatological wonders are deliberately vague in describing how the products employ stem cells to erase wrinkles, reduce redness, fade age spots and lift sagging skin. They seem to rely on the public's misconception that stem cells are Mother Nature's miracle, with the power to do everything from eradicate disease to give people a surgery-free facelift. These messages are aimed at the same people who believe "media reports" that Pepsi is using "aborted baby cells" in drink research.
Those of us who are a bit more informed about the science and potential of stem cells, however, are able to sort fact from fiction. Skincare companies are not using human embryonic stem cells; the last time I checked, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hadn't approved any process by which live materials are somehow incorporated into consumer-grade dermatology products. At best, these companies are creating products with plant stem cells, specialized peptides or enzymes that reportedly help protect human skin stem cells from damage and deterioration, or perhaps stimulate the skin's own stem cells.
The great divide between actual science and general public perception—complicated by political controversy and ethical debate—has only grown deeper with every breakthrough or achievement in the quest to use stem cells to regenerate or repair damaged tissue, skin and organs. Worse yet, such controversies have significantly slowed scientific and commercial progress, as noted by our features editor, Randall C. Willis, in the second part of our series on trends in stem cell research, "Regenerating interest in stem cell medicine," a feature report that begins on page 32 of this month's issue.
"When the idea of embryonic stem cells first came up about three decades ago, conversations ran rampant about the potential—pluripotential, if you will—of this technology to cure all human disease and assist us with replacement organs and tissues as those in our aging bodies failed over time. Despite a few early achievements, however, the hype quickly trailed off to be replaced by disappointment and anxiety," Willis writes.
However, he also notes, "While not necessarily abandoning the desire to outright replace damaged tissues—and perhaps, one day, organs via tissue engineering—stem cell companies have tamped down earlier rhetoric on being 'the' solution for human disease."
That'll be the first step in normalizing public expectations for stem cell therapies. Then, conversations between companies, regulators and payors must begin, with those of us entrusted with reporting on these developments doing so in a more responsible and approachable way.
Here's hoping that the scientific community uses the growing "stem cell skin care" market as an opportunity to educate the general public about the actual science and promise of stem cells. Until then, I guess I'll just slather on some sunblock and embrace the next phase of my life, wrinkles and all.