Many of us have heard of royal jelly in the past two decades, mainly due to television products that claimed to be anti-aging fountain-of-youth beauty solutions.

Beekeepers and bee lovers know royal jelly as the gelatinous substance used by honeybees to feed their young and help produce new queen bees.

There has always been a mythical, magical aura of mystery around royal jelly, something that defies our understanding. How does this substance help one of many larvae grow into a new queen bee?

The video below is 2:35 minutes long and shows how royal jelly is produced on a bee farm in Japan.

A team of researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California, headed by senior author Dr. Kevin Wang, decided to probe the known science of royal jelly a little deeper to see how and why it is so beneficial. The focus of their clinical research was for potential mammalian use.

Super-cells are undifferentiated cells that can morph into any specialized cells, play any role and serve any function. This potential is called “pluripotency.”

Dr. Wang explained that in the folklore of Asia and Europe, royal jelly has been considered a super-medicine even though the DNA sequence of royalactin, which is the active component in the jelly, is unique to honeybees. He is excited to announce that research has identified a structurally similar mammalian protein that can maintain stem cell pluripotency.

This new research has exposed some of the ‘magical’ properties of royal jelly, which consists of water, proteins and sugars. The ‘magic’ ingredient of royal jelly is the protein royalactin. Dr. Wang and his team believe it to be largely responsible for stimulating the impressive growth in the larvae chosen by worker bees to become queen bees.

After all, the queen bee is the matriarch of the honeybee hive and is solely responsible for laying up to 2,000 eggs daily. These hatch into larvae, which become worker bees or drones. She consciously decides which to lay, it is not a random act.

When a queen bee dies, how do worker bees decide which larvae are the best potential new queens? These will be fed royal jelly ongoing, so they develop into strong, fertile adult females. How does the royal jelly stimulate some larvae to grow into queens? This has been unclear, and herein lies the mystery that has led many people to believe it to have ‘magical’ properties that improve health and bring about miraculous anti-aging regenerative benefits.

Dr. Wang was always interested in the control of cell size, and the honeybee is the perfect model for studying this because all larvae start out identical but undergo dramatic and lasting differences in size as they grow into drones, workers or queen bees. He wanted to know how this happens, and suspected it had to do with early progenitor cells in bee larvae.

In their clinical study, the researchers applied pluripotent royalactin to embryonic stem cells, or undifferentiated cells, of mice. But stem cells quickly differentiate under lab conditions and become unusable, so researchers apply a complex inhibitor called inhibitor factor. By adding royalactin to the embryonic stem cells, researchers found it made pluripotency last for 20 generations without needing usual inhibitors. This was a game changer.

Researchers were surprised mammalian stem cells responded so well to royalactin since mammals don’t produce that protein. They looked for—and found—a mammalian-produced protein to match the shape of royalactin. It is called NHLRC3. The structure is like royalactin, and occurs in all early animal embryos, including human, according to Dr. Wang. When it was applied to mouse embryonic stem cells it helped maintain their pluripotency just like royalactin does. The team decided to rename this protein ‘Regina’ which is Latin for ‘queen.’

In theory, being able to replace old, damaged specialized cells with fresh new ones grown from stem cells could be beneficial in treating diseases. Researchers plan to discover whether Regina can improve wound healing and cellular regeneration and explore how to keep stem cells “youthful” in the laboratory.

Regina is an important molecule that governs pluripotency and the production of progenitor cells that can create embryo tissues. “It’s fascinating… we’ve connected something mythical to something real,” Dr. Wang says.