From fantastic face and breast lifts to stunning success with repairing muscles, bones and cartilage, adult stem cells promise to revolutionize modern medicine. The good news: They are available right now. The better news: You already have them inside you.
In Tampa, a man who was told that not even surgery could restore his knee to full use is now playing baseball without pain. A woman in California no longer needs the hip operation she was scheduled for. Another man in New York has recovered completely from the rheumatoid arthritis in his hands that plagued him for years. A middle-aged woman in Texas whose face looked ravaged from aging now looks buoyantly youthful.
What do these people have in common, besides seemingly miraculous cures for their various complaints? All have benefited from the use of stem cells.
Stem cells, those magical, mystery bullets that were officially frowned on during the Bush Administration, are back—and this time they are launching a healing revolution that could change medicine forever. Already they are changing the face of cosmetic surgery, with scores of therapeutic applications not far behind.
A Fat-Astic Find
So what exactly are stem cells, and why are they so important? Stem cells are found in all multi-cellular organisms, humans included. They are a kind of undifferentiated prototype cell that can take on the identity of other cells. The ones most people are familiar with are embryonic stem cells, found in the unborn fetus, which become all the different organs of the body. It was the use of these controversial embryonic stem cells in research that enraged the pro-life community.
There is another kind, however—the adult stem cell—and this is what all the excitement is about. It’s been known for decades that all human organs have stem cells in them, and that these stem cells can act in the same chameleon way as embryonic stem cells. The problem was that the only way to acquire any of these cells was from bone marrow, a painful process that did not yield an abundance of them.
Then, around ten years ago, a team of plastic surgeons at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center discovered that there were a huge amount of stem cells in fat. With liposuction already popular at the time, it didn’t take long to figure out that, if you could just extract those stem cells from the fat, you could probably find a lot of good uses for them.
The discovery of all those fat or ‘adipose’ stem cells answered another question, which came from cosmetic surgeons who for years had been transplanting fat. The early advocates of what is called an ‘autologous fat graft’—meaning the fat comes from you—were reporting great success with breast augmentations, butt lifts and even facelifts. More incredibly, they were reporting improvements in the skin itself.
Sydney R. Coleman, MD, one of the early pioneers of the fat transfers, said he first began noticing the effect of fat grafts on skin in the 1980s. “Early on I noticed that the overall quality of the skin would improve—its volume and its color—with wrinkling decreased, and pores decreased in size.”
Nor was Dr. Coleman alone in his observations, shared by an increasing number of doctors today. “The long term effects on the skin are remarkable,” says Todd Malan, MD, who practices stem-cell fat transfers in Scottsdale, Ariz. “There is thickening of the skin, repair of solar damage and repair from aging—even the disappearance of stretch marks…. We are seeing remarkable healing capacity.”
At the time Dr. Coleman first observed the phenomenon, however, he and other doctors could not explain it. “We thought it was the volume increase [from the fat] that reduced the wrinkles, or that the fat provided a physical barrier between the muscle and the skin,” he says. “But in fact it appears that the stem cells were the reason.”
After it was revealed that the fat was loaded with adult stem cells, doctors began figuring out ways to extract them, or at least concentrate them. Dr. Coleman developed a simple technique using a centrifuge, where the fat was spun around in a tube until it separated into layers. One layer of thick white fat was extremely rich in stem cells.
“I found I could exponentially increase the predictability of the results with the dense fat, because there were far more stem cells and growth factors,” says Dr. Coleman, which is another way of saying that this was the stuff that really worked.
That was about seven years ago. Flash forward to the present, and voilá, you have a whole cadre of pioneering doctors who are using stem-cell rich fat for facelifts, breast lifts and now, the more serious business of repairing broken and diseased body parts.
“Prior to 2001 we thought the only source of stem cells was bone marrow,” says R. Craig Saunders, MD, who practices outside of Dallas, Texas. “Since then [the discovery of ‘adipose’
stem cells] there has been a tendency to use fat as a volumizing agent, because the stem cells are reparative and regenerative.”
Even knowing that stem cells can repair and rebuild, Dr. Saunders says that when he first heard that adult stem cells could help restore heart muscles and other types of tissue, “I thought it was nonsense,” he says. Today his clinic uses stem cells for both cosmetic and therapeutic purposes. In particular he uses stem cells to repair sports related injuries, in which the stem cells regenerate the cartilage and bone damage.