With each passing year, the crow's-feet framing your eyes and the creases lining your forehead grow deeper. And those pits and craters, constant reminders of junior high acne, just won't disappear. Cosmetic and dermatological companies have many potential fixes for your dermal woes—fillers to minimize the appearance of wrinkles, laser treatments to smooth imperfections, even injections of bacterial proteins (Botox) that paralyze your face muscles to prevent skin stretching.* And at least one company is searching for the fountain of youth in baby foreskins—yes, we're talking about that flap of skin sliced away during male circumcision.
About 150 patients in the U.K. have already received injections of Vavelta, a foreskin-derived skin treatment aimed at rejuvenating and smoothing skin withered with age or damaged by scarring from acne, burns and surgical incisions, according to a spokesperson for Intercytex, PLC, the Cambridge, England-based company that makes the product. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved Vavelta, nor have any other federal agencies outside the U.K., where it was introduced in June 2007.
Each vial of Vavelta (enough for treating about four square centimeters of skin, roughly the size of a U.S. postal stamp) consists of about 20 million live fibroblasts—cells that produce a skin-firming protein called collagen, which becomes increasingly scarce with age. Fibroblasts also make elastin, a protein that allows the skin to snap back to its original shape after being pulled or stretched like a rubber band, as well as hyaluronic acid, which locks moisture in the skin, keeping it supple and plump.
The fibroblasts in Vavelta are isolated from the foreskins taken from baby boys, given several months to grow and multiply in the lab, and then packaged into treatment vials that are shipped to a select group of U.K. physicians. Each vial costs approximately 750 pounds, or $1,000], according to the company spokesperson.
Once delivered into the skin, the fibroblasts begin producing collagen, hyaluronic acid and elastin (which build and reinforce it) orthey make enzymes called metalloproteinases to break down excessive amounts of proteins that accumulate in scar tissue, according to Paul Kemp, Intercytex's chief scientific officer.
The results? "I was treated on one side of my face last year [and] the treated side feels smoother and plumper," Kemp says. "However, the visible difference is quite subtle. In patients who have been treated for acne scarring, there has been a visible improvement in the texture and surface contour of the skin. Similarly, in patients with scar tissue the result has been a softening of the scar and, in some cases, a dramatic increase in flexibility."
Jeffrey Orringer, director of the Cosmetic Dermatology and Laser Center at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, says that the concept is "intriguing," but warns that a number of questions must be answered before the product goes mainstream. Among them: How long will the fibroblasts survive and function normally once they are injected into the skin? And will they produce enough collagen to produce noticeable results, or perhaps too much, causing unsightly thickening of the skin?
Ron Moy, a dermatologist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, says that foreskin cells could potentially carry viruses. And although the company screens all the fibroblasts for contamination, he cautions there is "no test that's perfect."
The idea of using fibroblasts—including those swiped from baby foreskins—to repair skin is not new. Companies such as Organogenesis, Inc., in Canton, Mass., and Forticell Bioscience, Inc., in New York City already market such FDA-approved products to promote wound healing. But treating wrinkles with baby foreskins? The jury is still out.
*Note (2/14/09): This sentence has been modified to correct an error.