Is Your Blood The Secret To Ageless Skin?
Maybe the answer to unlocking eternal youth already lies inside us all. We just have to cross the Atlantic to find the key.
In 2013, Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon. Busting that thick, stretchy cord, which connects the calf muscle to the heel bone on the back of the lower leg, is excruciatingly painful for a normal person. But for an NBA star who, at 35, was already considered well past his prime, it was also enough to potentially end his career. (Because in major-league sports, if a sexual assault allegation doesn't do you in, your advanced age certainly will.)
So Bryant went to Germany to have his blood drawn, spun through a centrifuge to isolate the platelets from the rest of the blood, and then have the platelet-rich portion injected into the affected area, in an anti-inflammatory treatment known as Orthokine — a form of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy. Bryant wasn't the first athlete to undergo the experimental treatment, but he was at least partly responsible for its proliferation among his peers in the NBA; Steph Curry is one recent and notable example.
But the various uses of PRP therapy extend far beyond the knees of pro athletes. Initially evaluated as a post-cardiac surgery transfusion in 1987, it earned FDA approval in 2009 and later migrated north to the face — and, on one iconic occasion, all the way to Calabasas to one Kim Kardashian. If the procedure wasn't well-known before, it certainly gained infamy after Kardashian wept through her "vampire facial" in an episode of Kourtney and Kim Take Miami. Nothing piques the public's interest quite like the image of its reality queen's smiling face covered in blood.
Injecting your own plasma back into yourself to make your joints stronger or your skin more youthful sounds like a move ripped out of a twisted comic-book villain's playbook, but PRP therapy is increasingly popular for cosmetic purposes. "The thought behind PRP's usefulness is that platelets release growth factors that are essential to the wound healing process," says plastic surgeon David L. Cangello, MD, FACS. "By isolating plasma that is rich in platelets and adding more of these growth factors, wound healing and tissue regeneration is faster, which has benefits that range from healing sports-related injuries to stimulating regeneration of components of the skin for anti-aging purposes."
It's worth mentioning that Dr. Cangello only started performing PRP therapy at his New York City-based practice within the past six months; he says that he was reluctant to offer it to patients due to a lack of solid scientific evidence to support its usefulness. "I wasn't convinced that it works, but the demand and interest has grown to a point where patients are consistently requesting it," he says. But because there is really no known downside to using it on the face, and there is potential that it may have some benefit ("We just don’t know for sure because the proper controlled studies have not been done," Dr. Cangello says), his practice recently added it to their menu.
On the other hand, board-certified nurse practitioner (and Kardashian's current go-to facialist) Melissa Haloossim, who's the clinical director and co-founder of Skin Thesis in West Hollywood, CA, says she's been working with PRP therapy as a cosmetic treatment for over three years. In addition to its role in more efficacious wound healing, Haloossim says that the concentration of vitamins, nutrients, and proteins in the plasma improve skin by stimulating collagen and the skin's natural regenerative processes. "PRP injections are a great alternative for patients who want fillers, but prefer a more natural method," she says.
I wasn't convinced that it works, but the demand and interest has grown to a point where patients are consistently requesting it.
David L. Cangello, MD, FACS
The process, Haloossim explains, goes a little something like this: Patient has blood drawn into a special tube. Tube is placed in a centrifuge to isolate red cells from platelet concentrate. Patient waits 10 minutes. Doctor extracts plasma from tube. Patient has plasma injected into the topmost layers of skin in the desired areas of the face. Patient takes a selfie. Patient goes home.
Despite the involvement of blood and needles, the potential for negative side effects is quite low. "Although PRP treatments are safe, it's important for clinics to use the appropriate tubing to collect the patient's blood," Haloossim says. Her practice uses high-quality specialized tubes specifically made to lower the amount of white blood cell concentration in the plasma; an uncontrolled amount, she says, can cause harm to the tissue and delay healing.
Of course, there are the common-sense risks: "As with any procedure that involves penetration of the skin with needles, infection is possible," Dr. Cangello says. "If a blood vessel under the skin is poked with the needle, bruising or hematoma is also possible." It's also common for patients to see redness or puffiness for a day or two following the treatment. So, with very few risks, very little downtime, and zero potential for allergic reaction because it's your own blood — why wouldn't you get it? The price, which can exceed $2,500, may be prohibitive for some; there's also the potential that, well, it might not do anything.
"I can't say definitively that PRP therapy will work for those who try it, but we live in a time where more than ever, people want to look and feel young and healthy. Many people are willing to try things, whether proven or unproven but with potential, in order to achieve improvements in their appearance," Dr. Cangello says. "I think that, taking these things together, it's reasonable to offer this as a therapy for those looking for a minimally invasive, low-risk anti-aging treatment, though I think the potential is best for the therapy to make a significant difference when it’s used in conjunction with a laser or peeling procedure."
If, at the end of the day, PRP therapy is high-priced, low-risk, and medium-reward, Dr. Barbara Sturm's proprietary blood-treatment technique is the traditional therapy turned up to 11. Dr. Sturm studied medicine and sports at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany, and practiced as an orthopedic doctor for several years. During her time in orthopedics, Dr. Sturm worked on the team that pioneered what was known colloquially as the "Kobe procedure," which differs from standard PRP in that the blood is heated and spun in a tube with jagged glass beads, "tricking" the blood into reading a wound and rushing to heal it.
About 14 years ago, Dr. Sturm decided to translate her orthopedic knowledge into the field of aesthetics, and developed her own anti-aging variation of PRP therapy, called MCX. Where traditional PRP therapy involves taking the blood into an empty syringe, separating the plasma, and then injecting the resulting concentrate into the skin, MCX works a little differently. "The blood is withdrawn into a syringe that contains glass beads with an uneven surface, which triggers the blood cells to overproduce anti-inflammatory and regenerative factors," she says. "The body usually produces these factors when there is an injury; for example, when you cut your finger. Collagen fibers and fibroblasts grow and close the wound; anti-inflammation proteins called IL-1RA flood the wounded area. With the process we use, the patients’ blood is stimulated to produce those exact healing factors."
As with standard PRP, Dr. Sturm's technique — which involves injecting the fluid into the skin just like the "vampire facial," the trend of which she is often credited with kickstarting — has minimal risk, provided the process is sterile. "This is the natural healing process using your body's own material," she reiterates. "It activates the skin’s own repair mechanisms to rejuvenate, repair damage, and keep the skin healthy."
This is the natural healing process using your body's own material.
Dr. Barbara Sturm
MCX is potent and wildly popular, as is the plasma-enriched MC1 cream that Dr. Sturm produces for each of her high-profile patients using their own blood, which has earned her a loyal celebrity clientele that ranges from Kate Moss and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley to Angela Bassett and Cher. It's also not cheap: The procedure starts at 950 EUR (around $1,100 USD), while the cream will set you back $1,400, and you can't really compare the effects of a topical formula with that of an injectable treatment — no matter how much blood was used to create it.
That price does not include the cost of a plane ticket to Germany, which is where you, like Kobe, will need to go to get the treatment. While traditional PRP therapy is perfectly legal in the United States, the heating of the blood crosses the line for the FDA, so A-list actresses and NBA stars alike all make their way to Düsseldorf for Dr. Sturm's MCX and her orthopedic counterparts' Orthokine. So maybe the secret to unlocking rapid physical recovery and eternally youthful skin already lies inside us all — we just have to cross the Atlantic to find the key.