Just published in our August 2014 edition of the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Journal is a current and truthful analysis of where we are in the field of stem cell cosmetic procedures. The information comes from a team of physicians and researchers at the Stanford University Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. The article clarifies the meaning of “stem cell”, and the potential value of stem cells in the field of plastic surgery and other areas of medicine. The authors contrast the current state of stem cell treatments to what is perceived by the public from media advertising. Stem cell procedures are heavily marketed as the latest and greatest innovation in the field of anti-aging. All types of “stem-cell” procedures are described for facial rejuvenation, breast augmentation, body contouring, and skin rejuvenation. In reality, almost all are bogus.
When you do a Google search of “stem-cell therapies”, hundreds of advertisements pop up for clinics offering “stem-cell treatments” of various kinds. Many of these businesses are unregulated with practitioners who have no experience or training to perform these procedures. The majority of procedures offered are not “stem-cell” procedures at all, and the word “stem-cell” is inserted as a catch phrase to get business and market to the public. Corporations are using fraudulent marketing to make money and to cash in on the booming cosmetic surgery industry, without any regard for the person considering the treatment. It is our responsibility as Plastic Surgeons to educate the public in order to put an end to this immoral and unethical business tactic.
First and foremost, the public needs to know that stem cell therapies are not FDA approved. They are not proven safe or effective and have the potential to be quite dangerous. Only one human cell procedure has ever been FDA approved for cosmetic purposes. In June 2011, a product called LaViV was FDA approved for the treatment of smile lines around the nose and mouth area. A biopsy of your skin behind your ear is cultured to grow many fibroblasts, the most common cell comprising connective tissue and forming collagen. The company creates an injectable emulsion of your own cells that is used similarly to current fillers on the market such as Juvederm or Restylane, the difference being that the product it is made out of your own tissue. After 10 years of extensive evaluation and ongoing monitoring, it has been found to be safe, however, continued FDA approval requires the company to demonstrate no long-term risks of cancer or immune system effects.
What is a true “stem-cell” procedure? Stem cells are found in bone marrow and fat. They have the ability to renew and make other types of cells including bone, cartilage, muscle and fat cells. Since bone marrow is hard to get, fat is typically used as a source of stem cells, as fat is easily aspirated using liposuction. For anything to be a stem cell procedure, there needs to be a mechanism to sort out, isolate, quantify, and quality test stem cells from the whole of the fat that is harvested. Secondly, there needs to be a way to concentrate these cells under strict sterile conditions so they can be used for a “treatment”. As of now, there is no technology or machine that is FDA approved to do this. Issues that need to be addressed before this is something that can be done safely and effectively include making sure that the cells do not get damaged or contaminated during processing, or there is a risk for infectious disease transmission. In addition, because stem cells are similar to cancer cells, we need to confirm that these cells will not turn into malignancies.
At this point in time, it is unclear if stem cells even have a role in anti-aging or whether or not adding stem cells to a fat graft enhances volume retention. Stem cells age with the individual and are regulated by their surrounding environment. With age, DNA damage to these cells occurs and they become less capable of exerting predictable regenerative effects. Damaged stem cells have the potential to drive surrounding cells to death or tumor transformation, and may affect the immune system causing cancer or infections.
There is no such thing as a “stem cell facelift” or “stem cell breast augmentation”. When you see these procedures advertised, look the other way. As of now, stem cell research has really just begun. We can only hope that at some point in the future, stem cell therapies will be available not only to keep us looking youthful, but more importantly to help us treat deformities and diseases.