What is a stem cell?

When we talk about stem cell technology as an anti-ageing ingredient, what exactly is it that’s being discussed? Dr Franziska Wandrey provides some clarity

Cosmetics Business asks: What is a stem cell and what is discussed regarding stem cell technology

Over to the expert…

When most people hear the words ‘stem cell’, science fiction-inspired images pop into their heads: a cure to all diseases, or scenarios with bioengineered humans, for example.

However, while the term ‘stem cell’ still sounds futuristic to some, it actually originated in the late 19th century, when it became apparent that different cell types in the blood share a common precursor cell.

Today, the definition of a stem cell combines two main characteristics:

  • A stem cell can differentiate into other cell types. Depending on the stem cell, this could be all (totipotent), many (pluripotent), some (oligopotent), or even just one (unipotent) cell type(s) of an organism
  • A stem cell can divide to produce more stem cells. This process is called self-renewal.

Adult humans possess many types of stem cells in their body. In the skin alone, there are several different stem cells to replenish the cells of the epidermis, dermis, fat cells in the hypodermis, the hair follicle, and so on.

Although the stem cells in the skin, by definition, have self-renewing abilities, this process slows down during ageing. External and internal stresses further contribute to stem cell ageing, leading to a decline in the regenerative capacity of the skin.

It is not surprising that stem cell exhaustion was named one of the main hallmarks of ageing. Therefore, it is of high importance to protect our stem cells so that they can keep their ‘stemness’ for as long as possible.

Plant stem cells possess the same stem cell characteristics; their self-renewal capability can be used for the sustainable production of plant biomass.

By taking one part of a plant, for example one leaf or a fruit, and wounding it under the right laboratory conditions, a so-called callus tissue forms over time.

This callus contains plant stem cells that can self-renew and could differentiate into other plant cell types. By using the PhytoCellTec cell culture technology, we can keep these plant stem cells in their undifferentiated state and produce biomass through their cell divisions in sterile bioreactors.

There are many advantages to plant stem cell production versus traditional cultivation: only very little plant material is needed to establish a plant stem cell culture, which means that also rare and hard to cultivate plants can be used.

Furthermore, no agricultural land, no pesticides and a lot less water is needed to produce plant biomass, which makes it a very sustainable process that is not dependent on climate or seasons.

In cosmetics, the use of plant stem cells has been an incredible success story over the past decade. We were the first to demonstrate the positive effect of plant stem cell extracts on skin stem cells.

Our first and still highly popular plant stem cell active ingredient is an extract obtained from a rare Swiss apple cultivar. The extract helps maintain the stemness of epidermal stem cells and retain their capacity to build new tissue.

Since then, many different plant stem cell ingredients have entered the market with a plethora of claimed benefits for the skin and hair.

It will be interesting to see what stem cell research is going to discover in the future. Scientists are now able to reprogram specialised body cells back to a pluripotent stem cell state.

This technology was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2012 and has great potential to be used for personalised medical therapies. Perhaps our sci-fi imagination will not be that far off after all.

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