Is human placenta a wonder drug, or is it just another Japanese health fad?

Health and medicine explained.
Dec. 30 2008 8:00 AM

The Tissue of Youth

Is human placenta a wonder drug, or is it just another Japanese health fad?

Embryo. Click image to expand.
An embryo

TOKYO—Call it the oxygen bar of the future, but with needles and nurses, vitamins, and a shot of human placenta.

Amanda Schaffer Amanda Schaffer

Amanda Schaffer is a science and medical columnist for Slate.

Located in a tony complex—upstairs from L'Occitane and Armani, down the hall from Morgan Stanley—the clinic offers 10-minute intravenous drips to urbanites in need of a pick-me-up. (The place is called Tenteki 10, after the Japanese word for intravenous.) When I drop in, three women are on their way out, exuding relaxation, as if they've been to a spa. A technician tidies up the treatment room, where patients sit on elevated stools. IV bags release liquid into their veins as a flat-screen TV displays images of red leaves and water rushing over rocks. Many of the treatments include recognizable fare—vitamin C, biotin, and various amino acids—however questionable it may be to infuse unspecified doses of these "treatments" into healthy adults. But the kicker is the key ingredient in one of the cocktails: human placental extract.

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Placental extract has been available in Japan since at least the late 1950s. The country's National Health Insurance covers placental treatments for liver disease and symptoms of menopause, though patients pay out of pocket for its other alleged benefits, like fighting fatigue, treating insomnia, and combating aging, according to several Japanese doctors. The academic literature on it remains thin, however. And the complex soup of placental compounds—including, potentially, hormones, growth factors, and immune molecules—might mean that fountain-of-youth seekers could face some risks, like unwanted immune reactions or viruses. Is placental extract a clinical treasure trove? Or do these infusions amount to freaky magical thinking?

The staff at Tenteki 10 is confident about its popular "placenta pack," which costs about $30. The bubbly receptionist tells me it's her favorite drip at the clinic—she personally receives it at least once every other week. The morning after, she says, she wakes up refreshed, her skin noticeably smoother and younger. The clinic's medical director, Ryuji Yasumura, a physician who telegraphs calm paternalism, is also a fan. "Some young doctors don't know about placenta because it's old," he says, gesturing to his own salt-and-pepper mop, though it's not clear exactly how far back it dates as a folk remedy. But he argues that placenta ought to be better recognized and covered by insurance for more uses, particularly for fatigue, which many people in Japan's workaholic culture suffer from.

It's hard to deny the poetry of placenta. Placenta plays a crucial role in sustaining pregnancy by supplying the fetus with oxygen and nutrients, allowing it to dispose of wastes, and helping it build blood vessels and protect itself from disease. The possibility that it could also serve as a fountain of youth or health for mom and dad has circle-of-life allure. In some cultures, people bury the placenta and plant a tree in the soil. Many mammals—including cats, bats, goats, and, possibly, Tom Cruise—eat the placenta after birth. One Japanese company sells a placental "health drink" that reportedly tastes like peaches.

So, poetry gives way to commerce. At least two Japanese companies produce human placental extract, and numerous sites advertise online sales. The extract is also exported from Japan to Korea, where it is approved for liver disease and menopausal symptoms and widely used for fatigue and "skin whitening" as well. A doctor in Yunoyama, Japan, who runs a "health and rejuvenation tour" that offers injections of placental extract, in part for menopausal women, tells me that the extract is effective for treating disease and "safer than aspirin, I'm sure, 100 percent." Still, he concedes, "pure scientists say, 'show me the evidence.' "

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