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By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/18/2008 9:57:22 PM ET 2008-04-19T01:57:22

In 1931, Dr. Paul Niehans opened Clinic La Prairie in Clarens, Switzerland. There he experimented with something he called “cellular therapy.” By injecting human patients with the living cells of fetal sheep, he promised, people could be rejuvenated, their body’s tissues literally made young again.

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La Prairie quickly gained an elite clientele. Actress Gloria Swanson, the King of Morocco, Saudi Arabia’s founder King Ibn Saud, Pope Pius XII and many wealthy Americans and Europeans flocked to Clarens for the treatments, buying into one of the most ancient hopes of man — restored youth. Niehans had joined a long line of would-be saviors who came before and after. Some transplanted monkey, dog or goat testicles into men, or their ovaries into women. Others touted various elixirs, like one called Gerovital, popular in the 1950s. In the 1980s and early 1990s, hopes were placed on dietary supplements like beta-carotene, often in massive amounts. Nothing worked.

But not surprisingly, lots of people keep trying. According to the Freedonia Group, a Cleveland, Ohio-based market research firm, the market for anti-aging products exceeds $20 billion per year — and is growing at a rate of nearly 9 percent annually. Whether consumers are getting their money's worth, though, is still highly questionable.

Indeed, there is no better place to witness the truism of the phrase “hope springs eternal” — and perhaps “there’s a sucker born every minute” — than an anti-aging convention, especially on the trade show floor where the latest products and services are hawked.

At the 15th Annual World Congress on Anti-Aging and Regenerative Biomedical Technologies in Las Vegas, held under the auspices of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M), dozens of businesses set up displays to market everything from horny goat weed dietary supplements to wands containing dirt that supposedly align water molecules so the H2O will get into your cells. Many of the products and services attempt to capitalize on recent science buzzwords. Terms like “stem cells,” “growth hormone,” “nanotechnology” and “regenerative medicine” were flung about, but mostly it was a case of putting old wine in new skins.

“ADULT STEM CELLS are the BEST-KEPT SECRET in today’s wellness…” boasted a flyer for a dietary supplement called VitalStem. Take it and increase “the number of circulating stem cells in your body.” Not only can it “replace diseased cells with healthy cells” and provide “anti-inflammatory and immune system support” but also give users “mental clarity and mood elevation.”

But the products are really just a repackaging of a supplement that has been marketed aggressively since the 1980s, a form of blue-green algae called aphanizomenon flos-aquae. The science behind the claimed benefits for aphanizomenon is slight — whether the claim is for immune boosting as it was 20 years ago, or stem-cell enhancement as it is today. In fact, there has long been concern about the presence of toxins in blue-green algae products, though you wouldn’t know it from the marketers at the trade show.

Banking on a long future
Often, marketers use confusion over science news to their advantage. Stem cells are a good example. A new business has cropped up in the field of anti-aging, the storing of customers’ own (also called autologous) stem cells for some hypothetical future use, either to regenerate organs or to treat dreaded diseases. NeoStem and BioBancUSA, companies that take blood from customers and store cells, were both at the show.

But the stem cells the companies refer to are not the stem cells you’ve heard so much about — embryonic stem cells. And they are not the so-called “adult stem cells” found in niches within the body. They are blood stem cells. Though the companies accurately state that such cells are used in the treatment of some diseases, doctors are often loathe to use autologous cells in a treatment for, say, leukemia, because the cells may contain the abnormalities that caused the disease in the first place.

Yet the come-on sounds so reasonable you can feel foolish for not packing away a few cells for that day when your kidney explodes. Even if the hoped-for future uses are pure speculation, who knows, right? So why not pay BioBanc $1,795 for the processing and $150 per year for the storage?

Sex was another popular enticement at the A4M show. Aging slows down libido and creates havoc with our genitals. So the trade-show floor was filled with purported sex-boosters. There were growth-hormone-releasing agents of dubious efficacy, plant extracts, tonics.

Estro-Gel, for example, made from white yams, was marketed to “women who would like to feel like VIRGIN-AGAIN and would like to optimize intimate satisfaction." Estro-Gel “may increase desire to mate.” The company also claims Estro-gel may “combat … viruses including herpes hominis Type 2” and “papillomavirus.” It offered no evidence for any such effect.

Like stem cells and sex, nanotechnology has captured the imagination through news reports and scientific papers — often about future possibilities — on how the science of the ultra-small may someday revolutionize technology. In the world of anti-aging, however, the future is always now. “Nano-moisturizing renewing cream” and “nano-restoring night caviar” promised to deliver youthful good looks.

Miracle machine?
But one of the biggest, most impressive booths belonged to Arasys Perfector. It occupied nearly double the space of the booths of the other companies, many of whom were almost charmingly low-budget, and provided multi-page slick brochures and images.

On a small stage in the booth, older women sat in chairs as perky, young technicians rubbed metal rods over their faces. The rods were connected to a machine. A young female presenter described it as an “electrical, neural cellular antioxidant.”

“I love this machine and everything it stands for!” the presenter gushed. “It is warding off the aging process.” It does this by getting “your lymphatic channels draining better ... It is, like, ironing out the wrinkles … We can remove cancer with nanotechnology.”

Xanya Sofra-Weiss, the CEO of Arasys, told me she sells the machine for $18,880 to businesses owners such as doctors who run med spas. A larger version, for use by athletes seeking muscle toning or those hoping to slim down, costs $48,880.

She handed me a brochure that listed the many research breakthroughs associated with the Arasys systems. All but one of the experiments in the brochure were conducted by “Weiss, et al.” Though the presenter claimed that Weiss had a “Ph.D. in nanotechnology” I could find no research papers in any field by Xanya Sofra-Weiss. (She later explained that the presenter had misspoken and that she has a Ph.D. in psychology.)

Other Arasys literature reads as if random science-sounding words were simply placed together: “When Newtonian physics gave way to quantum theory at the very small scales of elementary particles and to general relativity at the large scales of planetary motion, and the static deterministic universe of absolute space and time was replaced by a multitude of contingent, observer-dependent space-time frames … Molecular biology unveils the body as a micro-cosmos of elements fulfilling their functions … This is why signals designed to burn, cut, interfere with the organism like lasers, Botox, etc., can never get as far as the ‘in synch’ signal designed to enhance bodily functioning…” It goes on.

“First it was melatonin, then DHEA, now it is growth hormone and nanotech and stem cells,” says Dr. Thomas Perls, a Boston University longevity researcher and a critic of the anti-aging industry, listing a few popular anti-aging products from the past 15 years. “But it is always a different version of snake oil, whether you call it one thing or another, the bottom line is that it is still quackery or hucksterism.”

'Just the exhibit hall'
In an interview, Dr. Ronald Klatz, co-founder, with Dr. Bob Goldman, of A4M, said he gets annoyed when reporters wander the booths of an A4M event and use the sketchy claims and flimsy science of fringe products to attack the credibility of A4M or anti-aging in general.

“This exhibit hall is constantly being mistaken for the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine,” he said. “But that is just the exhibit hall. That is where advertising, lotions, potions, lasers, X-ray equipment, plastic surgery equipment are being sold. That is an exposition. That is advertising! Then there is the scientific conference. That is where the real science is going on and real clinical medicine is being taught.”

But distancing A4M from the kinds of products and services offered at the exposition is somewhat disingenuous. Klatz, Goldman and the company that organizes the meeting itself, Tarsus Group PLC, are deeply involved in some of these same kinds of businesses.

Regenerco, for example, is a Klatz and Goldman company seeking to “offer, at a reasonable cost, high-quality, multi-screened vital pathogen-free stem cells originating from umbilical cords and placentas of healthy, live-births, or autologous [genetically identical] adult stem cells from peripheral blood collection.” It promises to use such cells as an anti-aging therapy and has made a deal with a resort developer in Indonesia, PT Hanno Bali, to be the exclusive stem cell distributor for anti-aging resorts serviced by yet another company called One Life +.

The Arasys Perfector is being funded with up to $500,000 from a firm called CapRegen PLC, a publicly traded regenerative medicine investment company based in the United Kingdom. CapRegen’s founders? Klatz, Goldman and Tarsus Group.

Brian Alexander, a frequent contributor to msnbc.com, is the author of "Rapture: A Raucous Tour of Cloning, Transhumanism, and the New Era of Immortality" and “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction."

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