Constantine Pergantis plans on being around for a while. The Washington, D.C., entrepreneur works out hard four times a week, eschews alcohol and cigarettes, and has forked over $1,500 for a strictly preventive full-body CAT scan. But even these extreme measures aren't enough for him.
"My goal is to reach 100 years old," he explains. "I'm always looking for the next thing to help me get there." That's why earlier this year the 49-year-old had a four-millimeter skin sample and 60 milliliters of blood deposited at CelBank, a laboratory in North Dakota. The stem cells in his blood will be multiplied and frozen, with his skin cells, in liquid nitrogen. While Pergantis continues to get older, a piece of him will remain forever young.
Daniel Mannix, 31, a partner in a New York City pathology lab, banks with NeoStem—$7,500 down and $699 a year for storage. "I've spent more on stupider things like bachelor parties in Atlantic City," he says. "Why not make an investment in my future?"
If you have the cash to spare, these labs are ready to freeze your assets.
For $3,500 (plus an annual storage fee of $199), CelBank extracts and saves your cells until iPS technology is perfected.
A shot of the drug Nupagen releases stem cells from your bone marrow into your bloodstream. The lab then stockpiles your sample—for $7,500, plus $699 a year.
Claims to be the "first and only company in the world" to transform your skin cells into iPS cells. After the lengthy $60,000 conversion process, your valuables are stored in liquid nitrogen.
By banking now, Pergantis, Mannix, and other early adopters are betting that in a decade or two they'll be able to use their own stem cells not only to replace joints or treat heart disease but to regrow hair, cure erectile dysfunction, and erase wrinkles.
Scientists have been researching the healing powers of stem cells for years now, but until recently the cells could be obtained only through controversy-generating embryos or invasive bone-marrow sampling. That all changed in 2012, when Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize for his discovery that any adult cell could be reprogrammed as an "induced pluripotent" (or iPS) stem cell. Translation? Not only can these stem cells be used to regenerate any body tissue, they can be acquired and stored easier than before. It's a game changer for many reasons, one being that it's essentially destigmatized the use of stem cells in the name of vanity. Where turning back the clock once meant a straw-size needle to the hip, now all it takes is a trip to your derm—and time spent waiting for the research to pan out.
It might sound like shades of Ted Williams' frozen head, but stem-cell banking is a $435 million market driven by more than 4,000 clinical trials of stem-cell therapies (everything from acne to weight loss) registered with the National Institutes of Health. Thus far only one has the Food & Drug Administration's approval (a cord-blood-based medication for treating blood disorders); a handful are pending.
So is it realistic to expect a personal fountain of youth from a vat of liquid nitrogen? Some argue that it's already happening. "The FDA states that if you tamper with stem cells, you are creating a drug, but European countries are more open," says John Anastasatos, M.D., a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who also practices overseas. "European companies reproduce stem cells so that in a few weeks there are billions that can be combined with fat and injected, making skin more shiny and youthful."
In the United States, physicians offer a version of this, known as a "stem-cell face-lift"—a two-for-one deal in which a doctor performs liposuction, extracts stem cells from the fat, and then uses them immediately (as opposed to duplicating them, which isn't permitted on our shores) as filler in the patient's mug. "Scars seem to disappear sooner, and I'm seeing a bit more radiance," says Richard Ellenbogen, M.D., a plastic surgeon in Los Angeles. "But I can't say that stem cells are earth-shattering. We need many years to see if they go to work." Ellenbogen's patients have stronger feelings: "It puts your skin back to where it was years ago," says John Davis (not his real name), 69, an attorney from Washington, D.C. "If I could have done this in my thirties, I would have."
Men today can. French biotech company Scéil is offering what looks like a premium package—it will convert your harvested skin cells into iPS cells and store them indefinitely for $60,000. The jury is out on whether conversion and banking is worth the dough. "Once iPS is perfected, a cell could be reprogrammed to a fully functioning stem cell at any age," says Valerie Horsley, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Yale University who is researching hair regeneration with stem cells. Other industry insiders hold that a stem cell frozen at 35 will be healthier, with more potential than one extracted for immediate use at 65. "Considerable evidence shows that as we age, cells become more limited in their ability to multiply and be manipulated," says CelBank founder Vin Singh.
Most therapies are far from fruition. Horsley has found that inserting stem cells into skin can stimulate hair growth—but so far only in mice. Meanwhile, sexual-health researchers at the University of California at San Diego are studying whether injecting the cells into the penis can cure erectile dysfunction. Lead researcher Irwin Goldstein, M.D., is optimistic but admits, "We don't really know how this works."
Nevertheless, Pergantis remains excited by his savings plan. If Horsley's team is able to develop a stem-cell-based cure for baldness, he says, "I'll be first in line."