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Stem Cells and Plastic Surgery

 Stem cells have the special capacity to divide and differentiate into all cell types and to self renew producing more stem cells. There are two types – Embryonic stem cells and Adult stem cells. The embryonic stem cells which are derived from human embryos, can become any other cell type while adult stem cells which are derived from some of the human body tissues, generally differentiate into  cell types of their tissue of origin. Use of embryonic stem cells attracts controversy as it involves destruction of human embryo. The use of adult stem cells does not attract such controversy, but they can be more difficult to obtain.

While the scientists are exploring ways to use embryonic stem cells in treating several serious diseases, efforts are also on in using adult stem cells in plastic surgery  procedures, specifically cosmetic surgery. The latter case involves obtaining stem cells from human fat tissues and using them to maintain and repair such tissues.

The success of using fat stem cells in plastic surgery procedures is not yet proven, but a number of cosmetic surgeons are trying cases to build up enough evidence. Fat is abundantly available in a human body and is renewable whether the person is obese or not. Earlier, human skin was seen to be a source of stem cells, but obtaining stem cells from body fat was later seen to be faster with a much greater yield. There are machines which isolate fat stem cells by centrifuguing the fat and breaking it in layers. The stem cells are thus concentrated in a certain layer. However, not all the machines are cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The plastic surgeons who are using stem cell approach for cosmetic procedures such as facelifts, appear to be confident of a better outcome over the conventional facelift procedure. Some of them harvest the body fat in a special way so that the fat is not environmentally exposed and contaminated and then a part of the fat enriched in stem cell is injected into the face. Another surgeon carries out the procedure with incision and after separating the fat layer enriched in stem cell, use LED light to activate the stem cells before placing it in position.

In the conventional procedure, the facial skin is cut, pulled and tightened. Additional procedures are performed to treat the area around the eye, forehead and the nose and If needed, the chin and cheek areas are augmented by using implants. With all these steps the conventional procedure may sometimes make the face look tight and un-natural, the skin thinner resulting in loss of elasticity and being vulnerable to environmental damage e.g sun damage.

The surgeons add that infusion of stem cell enriched fat in the face results in production of new collagen, blood vessel formation, replacement of damaged fat cells and break up of scar tissues. The stem cells adapt to the surrounding tissues by taking on their attributes and facilitate maintaining the results for several years by keeping adequate blood supply and replacing older cells. They say that the advantages of stem cell based procedure are many such as minimal risk of infection, more youthful and natural look, more cost effective and long lasting results.

But even the plastic surgeons offering stem cell based procedures agree that there is no way yet to prove the procedures to be as successful practically as in theory. The real life results or evidences so far are mostly 'anecdotal' and are not yet backed by solid data.

The other plastic surgeons who do not offer such treatment, also say that the there is not enough evidence. One of them says "there is very little published human data to show that injecting stem cells under the skin makes any difference- that it makes your skin look better or improves the outcome of plastic surgery. We have to separate the hype and marketing from the evidence we have to back it up".

But the surgeons note that since the stem cells and the fat layers are harvested from the patient's own body, there should not be any biological risk associated with the new procedure even if it is not wholly successful, except in case of its use in breasts where it could potentially lead to growth of tumors and must be avoided.

[Source: This write up is sourced from the article "Are Stem Cells the New Plastic Surgery Frontier?" by Aimee Lee Ball in Departure Dispatch in Jan/Feb-2012 and from Wikipedia]