Home-grown biomedical company CellResearch Corp has found a way to use ethically sourced red deer umbilical cord-lining stem-cell extracts in its new beauty brand, Calecim.
In recent years, plant stem-cell extracts - such as those of the edelweiss plant and the rare Swiss apple Uttwiler Spatlauber - have become popular ingredients in cosmetics. They are believed to have cell-regenerating properties.
Most beauty brands use plant stem cells because in Europe, China and some other parts of Asia, human stem cells are banned in cosmetics.
At the same time, high prices and ethical issues surround the use of animal-derived stem cells. In Singapore, animal-derived stem cell mediums are allowed for use in cosmetics.
CellResearch, founded in 2002 and valued at $600 million last year, is behind the discovery that the umbilical cord lining is a rich source of stem cells. Stem cells are notoriously difficult to harvest from other body parts, such as the bone marrow, adipose fat layers and placenta.
According to Dr Phan Toan-Thang, CellResearch's co-founder and group chief scientific officer, the cord lining, usually treated as waste after childbirth, contains a large amount of epithelial stem cells that can transform into skin tissue, as well as mesenchymal stem cells, which are important for bone and organ repair.
The bio-tech company owns 39 patents worldwide, including those for the extraction of stem cells from the umbilical-cord lining of all mammals, banking and cultivating them, as well as for therapeutic applications of those stem cells.
Dr Phan, who is an associate professor at the department of surgery at the National University of Singapore's Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine; and CellResearch co-founder, plastic surgeon Ivor Lim, are skin researchers.
CellResearch is the owner of one of the world's largest private skin- cell, scar-cell and keloid-cell libraries, which universities such as Harvard and personal care product companies such as Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson tap for cell samples to be used in laboratory tests.
It is working on a United States Food and Drug Administration trial, using human umbilical cord lining mesenchymal stem cells to heal chronic diabetic wounds, at the University of Colorado's Anschutz Medical Center.
Umbilical cord-lining stem cell treatments for severe burns and chronic bed sores are being explored in other institutions in partnership with CellResearch.
The corporation ventured into cosmetics earlier this year as it saw the promising results that umbilical cord-lining stem cells yielded in skin regeneration.
Dr Phan says: "The stem cells could heal wounds that would typically require skin grafts, such as serious burns and open, diabetic wounds."
For a variety of reasons, CellResearch chose red deer umbilical cord-lining stem cells as a source for Calecim products.
The company claims there have been no reports of transmitted diseases between deer and humans; and the umbilical-cord linings are sourced from a farm in New Zealand where the deer are reared for antler velvet, which is used in traditional Chinese and Korean medicine. Red deer shed their antlers naturally.
Calecim products contain up to 80 per cent of red deer umbilical cord-lining extracts, which Dr Phan says will help boost the health of one's skin. The extract contains skin-firming collagen, albumin, fibronectin, peptides and skin-plumping hyaluronic acid.
Made for women in their mid-30s and older, prices start at US$130 (S$184) for a jar of anti-ageing cream and up to US$300 for a four-week serum treatment set.
The brand is sold at clinics in Singapore and doctors use the products to calm patients' skin after aesthetic treatments. The products can be bought online at Calecim.com, Amazon.com and Lazada.sg. Overseas, the brand is sold in the US, Hong Kong and Thailand.
Mr Gavin Tan, the company's chief executive, says global sales of Calecim products have exceeded US$1 million since they were launched in February.
Adjunct associate professor Steven Thng, senior consultant and head of the pigment clinic at the National Skin Centre, says that, theoretically, it makes sense to apply growth factors to regenerate cells for youthful-looking skin. However, other factors must be considered, he says.
"For it to work, the product's ability to penetrate the deeper dermal-epidermal junction is important," he adds. In addition, Calecim contains a combination of growth factors, cytokines and proteins secreted by stem cells.
As cell regeneration proceeds along tightly regulated steps, where a certain protein at a particular concentration is needed at each step, just applying a fixed dose of protein and cytokines might not be so effective. This is because cell regeneration is a dynamic process and what it requires changes at each step.
Notwithstanding that, it would certainly be good if the claims can be verified through medical standard, double-blind placebo-controlled trials.
CellResearch says Calecim has been clinically proven to reduce down-time for laser treatments in a recent trial in the US. More clinical tests are being conducted to prove the brand's other claims.
A version of this story was originally published in The Straits Times on December 24, 2015. For more stories like this, head to www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle.