Many Fraudulent Stem Cell Beauty Treatments Are Being Sold Online

An analysis of websites found clinics that sell "stem cell" facelifts, breast augmentations, and vaginal rejuvenation procedures.

So Pretty

These are fibroblasts from a mouse. Fibroblasts are a type of stem cell that's being studied for cosmetic procedures.SubtleGuest on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

A number of experimental stem cell treatments have shown promise in patients recently. Facelifts, breast augmentations, and vaginal rejuvenation procedures (!!!) using stem cells, however, are not among the promising techniques. Nevertheless, unscrupulous clinics are selling these cosmetic "stem cell" procedures, a team of doctors and stem cell researchers found.

While we've previously seen reports of clinics offering unmonitored, unproven stem cell treatments, we never guessed there would be so many. The team, from Stanford University, identified 50 clinics with websites that offered supposed stem-cell cosmetic procedures. All the sites sold treatments in which a clinician takes a biopsy from some part of a patient's body, tries to isolate stem cells from that biopsy, and then injects the stem cells back into another part of the patient's body. In a paper the team members published, it sounds like they actually found more than 50 clinics that do this. They chose 50 for further analysis. Their conclusions about the clinics aren't necessarily surprising, but they're a good reminder about why it's a bad idea to get "stem cell" treatments outside of a clinical trial right now:

  • The clinics make promises that aren't borne out by the level of research that's gone into stem cell therapies.

  • The clinics don't have the equipment to fully separate stem cells from the tissue samples they take from their patients. The result is that these patients are likely getting injected with a mixture including stem cells, plus a bunch of other types of cells, depending on the body part from which clinicians take the original tissue sample.

  • Some of the advertised procedures don't use stem cells at all. The Stanford team found clinics offering platelet-enriched plasma as stem cell therapy. Platelet-enriched plasma doesn't contain stem cells. Technically, platelets don't even count as cells. You can learn more about platelet-enriched plasma from our story about blood facials (yum).

  • Because they promote the growth of cells, stem cells may create unwanted growths, including tumors. How about this woman who grew nasal tissue on her spine after a stem cell transplant?

Strangely enough, perhaps one driving factor behind these clinics' claims is that there has been some starting research on using stem cells for cosmetic procedures. Such research doesn't often get as much media coverage as more "serious" stem cell therapies, such as those aimed at reversing blindness or paralysis. Still, it seems it's been moving along, even if it's not ready yet for general consumers.

In one area of research, scientists have tried transferring stem cells taken from fatty tissue to other parts of the body, such as the breasts. For those who have undergone breast cancer treatment, the stem cells are supposed to improve skin quality around the breasts, or to improve the success rates of grafts of normal fatty tissue into breasts from which surgeons have removed tumors. The studies on these treatments are still small and conflicting, however. There's debate about the extent to which the body re-absorbs transplanted fat cells and shuttles them elsewhere.

Strangely enough, perhaps one driving factor behind these clinics' claims is that there has been some starting research on using stem cells for cosmetic procedures. Such research doesn't often get as much media coverage as more "serious" stem cell therapies, such as those aimed at reversing blindness or paralysis. Still, it seems it's been moving along, even if it's not ready yet for general consumers.

In the future, perhaps folks will be able to get safe, effective, stem-cell based cosmetic procedures that reverse the effects of time.

In one area of research, scientists have tried transferring stem cells taken from fatty tissue to other parts of the body, such as the breasts. For those who have undergone breast cancer treatment, the stem cells are supposed to improve skin quality around the breasts, or to improve the success rates of grafts of normal fatty tissue into breasts from which surgeons have removed tumors. The studies on these treatments are still small and conflicting, however. There's debate about the extent to which the body re-absorbs transplanted fat cells and shuttles them elsewhere.

Some researchers also think that stem cells have promise for slowing the effects of aging on the skin. Stem cells are able to make a number of chemicals that promote the growth of collagen, the tissue type that makes young folks' skin firm. There's little evidence that injected stem cells truly promote collagen growth and have an anti-aging effect, however. More likely, the Stanford team writes, getting injected with a bunch of liquid plumps up the skin and makes wrinkles less obvious. That's how many legitimate wrinkle treatments available now work, but it's not true anti-aging.

There's one FDA-approved cosmetic procedure using stem cells. It involves taking stem cells from behind the ear, growing them in lab for 90 days, and then injecting them into wrinkles around the nose and mouth. The cells are supposed to fill in wrinkles and deep folds.

In the future, perhaps folks will be able to get safe, effective, stem-cell based cosmetic procedures that reverse the effects of time. A real fountain of youth and beauty! For now, however, perhaps it's best to stick with the better-studied stuff, such as Botox and other popular injections.