Most Americans are not terribly fond of their fat, but what if you could put that spare tire to work -- healing wrinkles, increasing breast size or even speeding the recovery of a knee injury?
Too good to be true? Not necessarily.
For 20 years cosmetic and plastic surgeons have used fat grafts taken from their patients' own "supply" to restore fullness and decrease wrinkles in the face, but only recently have medical researchers begun investigating whether the adult stem cells found in the fat tissue could be used for healing on a wider level.
"Fat is naturally rich in adult stem cells ... and these stem cells have regenerative capabilities," says Dr. Peter Rubin, associate professor of Plastic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh and a clinical researcher of fat stem cells.
Research is under way around the globe to explore how these regenerative capabilities can be used to heal, he says, from reconstructing the face after traumatic injury to rebuilding breast tissue for breast cancer patients after a mastectomy.
But this technology leads a bit of a double life.
Its medical applications are still in the research phase, but some cosmetic surgeons are allegedly putting this technology to aesthetic use on their patients.
Services such as stem cell face lifts or even vaginal rejuvenation promise revolutionary results with the help of the regenerative power of stem cells. Given that this technology is not yet backed by clinical data or FDA approval, however, the benefits of such procedures are questionable.
"Stem cells are a buzz word now. Some of these procedures are driven by a profit motive and some are driven by science. If it's profit-motivated, you have to take it with a grain of salt for sure," says Dr. Felmont Eaves, plastic surgeon and president-elect of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
"The blood supply to a graft is very important, so since stem cells release growth factors, the concept is that if you increase stem cell density, then you can preserve greater fat retention," says Dr. Rubin.
The problem is, the machine used to make the stem cell-enriched fat is not FDA-approved, Rubin says, it's only approved for research purposes.
That doesn't mean that such procedures won't work or that they're necessarily unsafe, Rubin says.
"It's unlikely that these cells will cause harm [and] there are really great applications that can come out of this, but we need to be careful and deliberate in how we use these therapies," he says.
Dr. Mark Berman, president-elect of the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, has become an authority on the use of fat for cosmetic regeneration of tissue, and he says that most of the stem cell benefit occurs without specially concentrating stem cells in the fat.
While he's used concentrated stem cell fat in one woman to treat a chronically injured knee, "this is early stuff," he says. The "stem cell buzz" for things like wrinkle treatment, he says, is "misleading."
"Most doctors in the U.S. [probably all] that claim they are doing 'stem cell' fat grafting to lift eyelid and facial tissues are in reality using simple fat transfer," Berman says.