Public misconceptions about stem cells throw a wrinkle into scientific progress

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.

Amy Swinderman
Recently, I visited the optometrist for my yearly eye examand to obtain new eyeglasses and contact lenses. When the good doctor came tofetch me from the waiting room, he said, "come on back, young lady," butglancing 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 mehow to grind my teeth and kill such socially inept creatures with kindness.)
 
Afew weeks later, I elected to take a telephone survey about politicalcandidates, 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 getso far down the list?
 
As I creep ever nearer to my 40s, I'm assessing the optionsavailable to me that will somehow preserve the fountain of youth—because as thegreat Dolly Parton warned in the popular 1990s film "Steel Magnolias," "Timemarches 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 myphysical 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 caremanufacturers seem to think so. A quick look around the "anti-aging" skin-caremarket yields dozens of creams, serums, masks and other products that claim toturn back the hands of time—via the use of stem cells.
 
The marketing tacticsemployed by the "laboratories" responsible for these dermatological wonders aredeliberately vague in describing how the products employ stem cells to erasewrinkles, reduce redness, fade age spots and lift sagging skin. They seem torely 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 asurgery-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 scienceand potential of stem cells, however, are able to sort fact from fiction.Skincare companies are not using human embryonic stem cells; the last time Ichecked, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hadn't approved any process bywhich live materials are somehow incorporated into consumer-grade dermatologyproducts. At best, these companies are creating products with plant stem cells,specialized peptides or enzymes that reportedly help protect human skin stemcells from damage and deterioration, or perhaps stimulate the skin's own stemcells.
 
The great divide between actual science and general publicperception—complicated by political controversy and ethical debate—has onlygrown deeper with every breakthrough or achievement in the quest to use stemcells to regenerate or repair damaged tissue, skin and organs. Worse yet, suchcontroversies have significantly slowed scientific and commercial progress, asnoted by our features editor, Randall C. Willis, in the second part of our serieson 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 aboutthree decades ago, conversations ran rampant about thepotential—pluripotential, if you will—of this technology to cure all humandisease and assist us with replacement organs and tissues as those in our agingbodies failed over time. Despite a few early achievements, however, the hypequickly trailed off to be replaced by disappointment and anxiety," Williswrites.
 
However, he also notes, "While not necessarily abandoning the desire tooutright replace damaged tissues—and perhaps, one day, organs via tissueengineering—stem cell companies have tamped down earlier rhetoric on being'the' solution for human disease."
 
That'll be the first step in normalizing public expectationsfor stem cell therapies. Then, conversations between companies, regulators andpayors must begin, with those of us entrusted with reporting on thesedevelopments 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 publicabout the actual science and promise of stem cells. Until then, I guess I'lljust slather on some sunblock and embrace the next phase of my life, wrinklesand all.

Amy Swinderman

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