The prospect is a tantalizing one. To erase wrinkles and fine lines, or to get bigger breasts, without cosmetic surgery. Forget silicone, forget collagen. All you would need is stem-cell therapy.
Realistically speaking, though, such applications remain a pipe dream.
Of course, it wouldn't be the first time a medical therapy had been bent in the direction of aesthetics. Take a look at Botox -- the deadly botulinum toxin initially used to treat spasms is now used to improve the appearance of frown lines.
And while stem-cell applications for the vanity market may have to wait, some researchers have begun to research the possibilities of stem cells in plastic and reconstructive medicine.
"Stem-cell research appears promising for medicine and particularly for plastic surgery," said Dr. Ronald Friedman, director of the West Plano Plastic Surgery Center and a board-certified plastic surgeon practicing in Plano, Tex.
"Hair follicular stem cells, tooth stem cells and skin stem cells all show therapeutic promise," said Denis English, editor in chief of the journal Stem Cells and Development and director of cell biology at the Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla. "These can restore hair to a bald man, teeth to those in need and skin to scarred patients."
The use of stem cells to regenerate tissue is believed to hold promise because stem cells can be nudged to develop into specialized cell types. And some researchers have turned an eye toward stem cells for this very purpose.
In October, a University of Pittsburgh team led by Dr. Peter Rubin received a three-year grant from the National Cancer Institute to explore the possibility of using stem cells derived from a patient's own fat. Rubin, assistant professor of plastic surgery and co-director of the university's Adipose Stem Cell Center, used those stem cells to create a durable, shaped piece of replacement tissue.
The research may one day allow breast cancer survivors to take advantage of a natural replacement after a mastectomy.
But with these possible applications in reconstruction, could cosmetic applications be far behind?
"Naturally, the public shows more interest in applications like breast augmentation," said Dr. Peter Costantino, director of the Center for Facial Reconstruction and Restoration at Roosevelt Hospital in New York.
"In our society, there is such a huge demand for these rejuvenation surgeries, despite their significant risks, that the pragmatist in me cannot deny the likelihood that it will not be long before someone offers a two-stage procedure starting with liposuction followed by injection of these autologous stem cells for breast augmentation or into the face to rejuvenate," said Dr. Daniel Salomon of the department of molecular and experimental medicine at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.
Though initial research into the potential of stem cells in reconstructive surgery is promising, actual applications -- particularly those of a purely cosmetic nature -- are still distant.
"This is still very far in the future, except for tabloid speculation," said Dr. Garry Brody, professor emeritus of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles. "By the time it becomes practical -- and affordable -- I suspect it will be beyond our lifetimes."