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Stem cell facials may be trendy, but do they work?

Update: July, 13/2014 - 20:24
Skin deep: Awoman undergoes a facial treatment. — VNS File Photo

While many wealthy consumers are lighting up at the chance to try ‘skin rejuvenation' using stem cells, the expensive therapy might not deliver on all its promises. Hong Thuy reports.

One Saturday in April, a friend called and asked me to accompany her to a beauty salon, where she was getting her facial skin rejuvenated by stem cell therapy.

There's nothing like discoveries of the unknown, so I jumped at her invitation to find out more about how stem cells work for skin rejuvenation, not forgetting to ask her if she thought it was a safe place to get it done.

"I came across this beauty salon on the Internet offering 20 per cent discount for skin rejuvenation using stem cell therapy. Check it out," my friend said in an excited voice.

Situated in Bui Thi Xuan Street in Ha Noi, the beauty salon that my friend had referred to was in a high building. Its owner was renowned as an ageless, beautiful woman, who had succeeded in various areas like making of wedding gowns.

The owner was not there when we arrived, but we were cordially welcomed by her staff.

One girl led us to the parlour where my friend talked to her about the purpose of our visit. Another girl, smiling cheerfully, was heading toward us at a brisk pace, holding a tray with two cups of tea.

Five minutes later, my friend was taken to an exclusive room to receive skin assessment and consultation. She was there for about 20 minutes before we stepped out of the salon.

"The doctor assured me that stem cell therapy will erase acne and repair my slack skin. He also guaranteed that there were no side effects when applying the therapy. But it was costly, more than VND100 million (US$5,000)," my friend said, but her eyes glittered with delight and hope.

It seems that my friend was not the only one who believed that stem cells would work miracles for her skin.

Searching for stem cells for cosmetics and cosmetic surgery on Google, it took me five seconds to find out thousands of articles relevant to the topic, both with its negative and positive effects.

No wonder that such a huge amount of information can confuse clients on what is true or false.

As most customers know about stem cells for cosmetics and cosmetic procedures through advertisements and websites, they have high expectations on its ability to rejuvenate their facial skin, said the head of VINMEC International Hospital's Plastic Surgery Department, Dr Ngo Anh Tu.

"It is not so in reality," the doctor said, "Many people still do not have a proper understanding of stem cell therapy. They think of stem cells for cosmetics and cosmetic procedures as a fashion, and do not actually understand what stem cells are."

It is widely known that stem cells have the potential to treat an enormous range of diseases and conditions that plague millions of people around the world. Their ability to treat so many diseases rests on their unique properties of replacement, regeneration and repair.

According to the World Health Organisation, stem cells have enormous potential for medicinal purposes.

The discovery of adult stem cells and blood-forming stem cells in the 1960s marked the beginning of stem cell research in developing countries.

Initial successes were recorded in the transplant of blood-forming stem cells or hematopoietic stem cells for the treatment of malignant diseases like cancer of the white blood cells known as Chronic Myelogenous Leukaemia (CML) and Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML).

In recent years, stem cell research and its applications have expanded to treatment for heart diseases, burns, arthritis, eye diseases, skin diseases and cosmetic surgery.

In Viet Nam, the use of stem cell therapy and stem cell-based products is still at the experimental stage. Therefore, all health facilities, including hospitals are not allowed to apply stem cell therapy in cosmetic surgery if they have not been permitted by the Ministry of Health, said the head of the ministry's Medical Examination and Treatment Department, Luong Ngoc Khue.

"The use of stem cells to whiten or rejuvenate skin, as well as therapies for breast enlargement, must receive permission from the Ministry of Health," he said

"Only big hospitals like the Bach Mai General Hospital, the National Institute of Haematology and Blood Transfusion are allowed to use stem cells for the treatment of diseases."

While stem cells for cosmetics and cosmetic surgery are being examined, many beauty salons are vying with each other to attract customers by promoting the use of stem cells in skin rejuvenation and breast augmentation as a panacea for their problems.

Customer Nguyen Hoai Huong said she had rejuvenated her skin by using stem cell therapy, though she was not aware how much of a difference it had made before and after the skin rejuvenation therapy.

"The staff member explained to me that she was going to take 10cc of blood from my veins. Having done that, I was waiting for about half an hour when she used centrifuge to separate stem cell containing solution from the blood. The staff then injected the solution on my facial skin. I had to repeat the same procedure three times and it cost me US$800," Huong remembered.

"I am told that the stem cell solution will reduce wrinkles and blemishes on my face. But I do not see much improvement," she said.

Remarking on the exaggeration of the use of stem cells for cosmetics and cosmetic surgery, Dr Tu said customers always have great expectations of a perfect and fruitful service while there have been no specific results about the efficiency of stem cells.

"No scientific tool is available to measure the use of stem cells for cosmetics and cosmetic surgery. Results are mainly based on the feelings and satisfaction of customers," Tu said.

He also asserted that the high cost of medical equipment is hampering private beauty salons from having a separate stem cell unit, not to mention the strictly hygienic conditions that they are unable to ensure.

VIMEC has invested about VND100 billion ($4,650) to buy equipment and employ doctors for its newly established stem cell centre.


Dr. Mai Trong Khoa, deputy director of the Bach Mai General Hospital in Ha Noi, which is allowed by the Health Ministry to use stem cell technology for treatment of joint degeneration diseases, called for caution while using genetic technologies, including stem cells, on humans.

"If stem cells are not properly controlled when they are implanted or injected into the human body, they may cause malignant diseases," he said.

For the sake of safety and efficiency, stem cells should be extracted and used under processes that are certified by competent agencies like the Health Ministry, he said, adding that every process that is being studied or is certified by a single hospital or a commercial organisation should not be used on humans, Khoa added.

"Stem cells, which can be extracted from fatty tissues, periphery blood, bone marrow, or umbilical cord blood, must be managed under strict procedures to avoid unforeseen consequences."

About stem cells on cosmetics, Tu said there are no stem cells in skin care creams as advertised by shops selling beauty-enhancing products.

"Stem cells survive only in minus 196 degree Celsius," the doctor said.

Considering this, the head of the Saint Paul Hospital's Plastic Surgery Department, Dr Tran Thiet Son, said many customers are fooled by exaggerated advertisements about stem cells and recommended, not wasting money on stem cell-based products and causing harm to their health.

In an attempt to help customers not be swindled, the Ministry of Health has announced that it has not yet licensed any stem cell-based cosmetics.

Additionally, health facilities which provide unlicensed services for their customers or provide services beyond their actual ability and conditions will be penalised, Khue said. — VNS


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