Will Stem Cells Help Breast Cancer Survivors Regain Breasts?

Photo: Using stem cells to regrow breast tissue.

The prospect of a woman regrowing her own breast tissue following a mastectomy may be a welcome one, but some experts say initial reports on new trials underway to do that with stem cells in the U.K. and Australia have presented an overly rosy outlook.

British, Australian and American news outlets reported last week that groups in Melbourne and London had begun trials to use fat stem cells, derived from fat tissue from a patient's body, to rebuild a woman's breast following surgery. But while some predicted that the treatment would be available within a few years, that estimate ignores many of the safety concerns that accompany this type of research.

"I would be careful to jump on this as the cure for breast reconstruction," said Dr. Anne Wallace, director of the University of California, San Diego's Cancer Center's Breast Cancer Unit. "That is something where reconstruction avenues are already extremely well developed."

Wallace noted that present methods -- often involving implants, have positive results for many women, so the novelty of this method may be outweighed by both the potential cost and safety concerns.

"It's very exciting and an interesting avenue for reconstruction, but I want to wait for more to come out about it," she said.

Claire Nixon, senior editor for the nonprofit breast cancer information organization breastcancer.org, is herself a breast cancer survivor, having had a mastectomy to remove a tumor she found on a self-exam when she was 30.

She had immediate implantation at the same time, to avoid a period with no breast -- a benefit that she noted would not be had by women who may someday choose stem cell regrowth, a process that will take weeks or months.

"Women are really going to have to think about whether they want to do that wait or whether they want something right away. I can see a lot of reasons for wanting something right away," said Nixon.

At the same time, she said, "I think some women might find that exciting, that it can be their own tissue. An implant alone doesn't feel as natural as using your own fatty tissue from other parts of your body," she said, referring to a current operation where fat tissue from donor sites on the body is used to reconstruct the breast.

However, Nixon said, "I can't speak for all women, but for me, while it does sound very intriguing and compelling, I think that we need some long-term safety data first to ensure that there is a low risk of possibly regenerating any stray breast cancer cells."

That is one concern of researchers working on the new method. Professor Kefah Mokbel of the London Breast Institute told The Times in the U.K. that patients in his trial would need to be free of cancer for two years.

Mokbel did not reply to a message left at his office by ABCNews.com.

Wallace noted that she had some discomfort with the method because of the growth of stem cells and the possibility for spreading cancer, something that could delay the time from testing to availability, since long-term safety trials will, obviously, take years to complete.

"Until that's done, I'd be very uncomfortable," said Wallace. "It's not enough time to know."

Stem Cells in the U.S.

Dr. Grant Carlson, who is both a surgical oncologist and a plastic surgeon at the Emory University School of Medicine, said that another delay for patients in the United States hoping to use these stem cells might come from the Food and Drug Administration.

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