You are probably hearing a lot of hoopla about stem cell facelifts. Is this a revolutionary advance or an evolution of exisiting techniques?
First of all, what is a stem cell? It is a type of cell that can develop different kinds of tissue. By definition, embryo cells are stem cells, because every cell in the small embryo will divide and form a certain type of tissue. For example, some cells will become bone, others skin, etc. At some point the cell loses the ability to become something else. It is no longer a stem cell.
There are many medical conditions that could be restored to normalcy if we could just replace the defective or missing parts. It is very hard to get them from other humans, and when we do there is steep price to pay to overcome the immune system. Think of kidney transplants. Stem cells fulfill the promise of restoring the defective or missing parts without the drawbacks of transplantation.
The problem up to now has been where to get the stem cells. The first place scientists looked was, naturally, embryos. But it generated a political storm. Thanks to the prodigal efforts at institutions like Univ. of Wisconsin (my alma mater), the genetic code of skin type cells was cracked to allow differentiated cells like skin to turn back the clock and become stem cells. Not a simple process.
On the other hand, every plastic surgeon doing liposuction has had a wealth of stem cells at his disposal. We just didn’t know it! How many stem cells? About a billion in every one of those liposuction cannisters. Easy to get. Simple to process. Fat, the same tissue people spend time, money and energy to remove, has within it the power to heal, to restore. Those stem cells explain why the skin of the face looks so much better after fat transfer. As a matter of fact, those of us doing a lot of fat grafting have been doing stem cell therapy for years without knowing.
And that is the whole issue in a nutshell. In our pursuit of the fountain of youth, we did not recognize it when we stumbled upon it. That has changed. We have glimpsed the medicinal treasure within us. We are working hard finding better ways to harvest it, process it, and use it to our patients benefit. There are already reports of amazing results not only with facelifts, but breast reconstruction, radiation damaged tissues, and treatment of wounds. I can attest to this from my own surgical experiences as my patients are having great results!
How ironic that the unlocked healing power of genetic expression is being delivered not by a politically charged embryo, or a retro-engineered laboratory cell, but by that unwanted guest, fat.
Ricardo L Rodriguez, MD