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Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2006

Trying to iron out all the wrinkles

A Japanese dentist claims stem cell treatment is just around the corner

Special to The Japan Times

Look in the mirror. Look closely. Peer into your own eyes. Whether you are 16 or 26, 46 or 66, or even 86, whether you are a teenager or pensioner, a woman or a man, the experience is likely to be sobering as you see the signs of age spreading inexorably and effortlessly across your face. Ravines of worry burrow their way into your fore head, laughter lines run riot, bags sag under your eyes from heavy living, stress or sleepless nights.

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News photo
Professor Minoru Ueda (above, top) told the world's top dentists recently that he can extract stem cells from mouth tissue and inject them into the face (above, bottom) to reduce wrinkles, as shown in before and after pictures (bottom). KEVIN RAFFERTY PHOTO (above, top); MINORU UEDA PHOTOS (above, bottom and bottom)
News photo
News photo

Don't say you don't care. Globally, we spend almost $20 billion a year on cosmetics -- the lotions to soften skin, disguise lines and re-energize (we hope) aging skin. If you Google for "Botox" alone, you get a massive "about 10,100,000" results.

Many people look for more radical measures, even though most of them come with a hefty price tag and some with a heavy risk. American women alone spent $6.3 billion on cosmetic surgery in 2004. And don't think men are happy to accept wrinkles as badges of maturity -- in the same year, American men spent $2.1 billion going under the knife.

The problem is, of course, that getting rid of wrinkles can be hazardous, expensive and short-lived. Botox, for example, comes from botulinum toxin, a poison which prevents nerve impulses from reaching the muscle, causing the muscle to relax. A Botox treatment lasts only about six months.

But now, from an unusual source comes the promise of an answer to all the deficiencies of existing treatment: one that uses your own stem cells.

This radical research is being done not by a big cosmetic company or pharmaceutical giant, not even a hospital or doctor, but Minoru Ueda, a dentist. And, while it sounds too good to be true, Ueda, a professor at Nagoya University, says his work is about to go commercial.

His first successful patient, he says, was himself. And if you look at his face, there is hardly a wrinkle in sight.

He has already won the applause of his peers at an international conference of the world's top research dentists. He startled this year's annual conference of the International Association of Dental Research by beginning with a slide of the face of an 85-year-old woman, toothless, etched and wrinkled like a contour map.

Then he put up a screen showing the woman looking as if made new, as she would look if she benefited from the radical tissue-engineering treatment he is pioneering -- wrinkle-free and with the smooth complexion of someone in their mid-40s, smiling, confident and flashing white teeth.

The second image was actually that of a younger woman, but Ueda claims to have perfected a treatment using stem cells that, while unable to eliminate wrinkles, will reduce them significantly. His message is: Forget traditional face-lifts and, instead, get a long-lasting natural fibroblast of your own cultivated stem cells, which can make you look almost instantly younger.

Japanese will have the first chance to try the technique, which involves scraping gingival tissue from inside the mouth, cultivating stem cells from it and then re-injecting the cultured cells in strategic places. Ueda hopes to open a tissue-engineering center in Tokyo early next year and wants to open others around Asia.

He says treatments will last about 20 minutes a time; a full course will require three visits spread over six weeks. He won't go into details about procedures for harvesting and cultivating the gingival tissue, saying he does not want to give an advantage to rivals.

"The injection method is very important, deciding how many cells to treat," he says.

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Ueda claims that he has "already got permission from the Japanese health ministry to commercialize [the reproduction of] the human cell" and is investing "more than 10 million yen" to set up a company that will run clinics in cooperation with a commercial company. (He will not identify his corporate partner.)

Playing his cards so close to his chest might invite skepticism about Ueda's claims, but assistant professor at Osaka University, Mikako Hayashi, who has a reputation as one of Japan's best clinical and most conservative dentists, says that Ueda's technique is "simple, harmless and less invasive" than conventional treatments.

"I have to caution that I would like to see the results of well-designed clinical trials to see how many wrinkles are removed for how long and what are the side effects. But sometimes the best ideas are the simple ones." She adds that the fact that Ueda was given star billing by the world's leading dental research body shows how highly the profession regards Ueda, who has been described by one world dental organization as the foremost international researcher in the field of development of the regenerative medium of dentistry.

Ueda is optimistic that his treatment will take off, adding that his target is 500 patients per clinic per year within three years. He laughs confidently that "I will continue to be a professor and will become a rich man."

Brushing aside any suggestion that he has any rivals in the field, in an almost blase manner, he declared that, "There are a lot of smart researchers, but they are weak in the clinical field."

He is being too optimistic. This is a multibillion dollar vanity industry crowded with scientists, big commercial companies, as well as cracks and quacks offering miracle cures. He only needs to lift his eyes from Japan across the Pacific Ocean to see that American scientists working with commercial companies hope to get the go-ahead soon from health authorities for new long-lasting treatments which they claim will remove wrinkles for years. U.S. companies have developed several types of dermal fillers, as they are called, that are already beginning to replace traditional face-lift treatments and have won favor because they can be used to attack deeper facial lines and depressions and add volume to sunken cheeks or smooth a bumpy nose.

Dermal fillers consist of a mixture of human fat, human collagen, bovine collagen, hyaluronic acid (found naturally in the body's connective tissue), synthetic substances or combinations of those materials. Older, short-acting fillers are made of natural products such as collagen and fat that are quickly absorbed by the body. The new long-acting fillers mostly rely on synthetic materials that help to provide extra durability.

Ueda said that the laboratory cost of his tissue-engineering was about 100,000 yen, twice the cost of a course of shorter-lived treatments, though the actual costs could rise to 500,000 yen in commercial practice -- making it more expensive but cheaper per wrinkle-free month than the alternatives.

Ueda worked in Nagoya alongside medical doctors specializing in burns and scar-tissue work, so he has a broad understanding of dental health. He comments that there are handicaps in being a dentist -- and thus being licensed to treat the mouth -- in that "wrinkles in human beings are not limited to the dental areas of mouth and face."

This actually caused him quite a few problems, particularly in raising funds for research. Dental work, he says,"is not so glamorous, so it is tough to get government funding."

While it may seem surprising for a dentist to get the jump on the giants of the global beauty care industry, Hayashi points out that "what is happening inside the mouth has a big impact outside the mouth on how the face looks."

"Perhaps the best lesson from this is that if you want to look beautiful and stay healthy, the dentist is your best friend, rather than the source of your worst nightmares."

Ueda may be seen as something as a maverick. In his papers written in Japanese, he has gone so far as to predict that implants and growth of bone tissue may lead to the regeneration of teeth, perhaps to the extent of allowing humans a third set of teeth. But he did not raise this controversial subject in his keynote lecture or in questions afterward at the annual dental research conference.

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