Advanced BioHealing's Dermagraft skin substitute uses cells derived from an infant foreskin. (Courtesy: Advanced BioHealing)
In the bio-tech industry, the term “neonatal fibroblast” is often code for “baby foreskin,” or at least the cells derived from one.
Much like embryonic stem cells may revolutionize treatments for a wide range of chronic and genetic disorders, the neonatal fibroblast has changed how medical and cosmetic doctors heal the skin.
San Diego doctors have appreciated the potential of the foreskin as far back as the 19th century. As Dr. Peter Charles Remondino wrote in 1891 in The History of Circumcision, “for skin-transplanting there is nothing superior to the plants offered by the prepuce of a boy.”
What Remondino couldn't have foreseen is how San Diego County's bio-science industry would develop foreskin technology. For example, Invitrogen Corp., a subsidiary of Carlsbad-based Life Technologies Corp., offers neonatal fibroblasts for $339 per 500,000-cell vial.
Asked where the foreskins come from, spokesperson Tim Ingersoll responded via e-mail: “Life Technologies produces research-use only products using neonatal foreskins discarded from circumcisions with full, informed consent.”
Foreskin research is more closely associated with La Jolla-based Advanced Tissue Sciences. In the early '90s, the company invented a way to grow and use the fibroblast cells in a skin overlay that could produce collagen and other biological elements to heal wounds.
ATS eventually became financially insolvent and spent the past decade liquidating its assets. Co-founder Dr. Gail Naughton is now dean of the SDSU School of Business Administration.
The foreskin formula also stayed local. Advanced BioHealing, a Connecticut-based company with a 70,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in La Jolla, currently uses ATS's “Dermagraft” treatment, which is applied primarily to diabetic foot ulcers. Carlsbad-based SkinMedica also employs ATS's fibroblast process but discards the cells and uses only the protein-rich culture in its skin-cream products.
According to the corporate-analysis firm Hoovers, SkinMedica has a staff of 160 employees and reports $60 million annually in sales. Advanced BioHealing estimates that it pulled in $80 million in sales in 2009 and grew its workforce to 250 employees.
Neither company has acquired a prepuce in nearly 20 years: Advanced BioHealing and SkinMedica's cells lines are both derived from a single foreskin.
Technically, a fibroblast can be made from any skin tissue, old or young, but the healing properties of infant skin are superior. The fibroblast can come from the skin of any body part, but circumcision means there's already a surplus of infant skin that would otherwise be destroyed.
“It comes down to the availability of tissue,” Charlie Hart, chief scientific officer for Advanced BioHealing, says. “Collecting tissue from a different site would be an abnormal surgical procedure and there would be a lot of ethical issues with that.”
SkinMedica has been questioned for using the foreskin culture in its Oprah-endorsed anti-aging products.
“Initially, there was a misunderstanding and people thought we were actually grinding up the foreskin,” SkinMedica founder Dr. Richard Fitzpatrick says. “So, there was a lot of snickering and laughing about people putting this foreskin product on their face.”
How did SkinMedica put the urban legend to rest?
“We stopped mentioning it,” Fitzpatrick says.
Writers Note: Advanced Tissue Sciences originally identified as being based in Carlsbad. It was based in La Jolla.