When doctors, researchers and celebrity lobbyists talk about the amazing potential of stem cell therapy, their discussions usually center on big-ticket items such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer and spinal cord injuries. They don't, as a rule, talk about wrinkles and crow's feet.
But could stem cells be the next frontier in anti-aging medicine? Though most stem cell therapies are still in their infancy, a small number of plastic surgeons across the country are already offering so-called stem cell face-lifts, cosmetic procedures that use a person's own stem cells to supposedly bring new life to aging, sagging skin.
Stem cells are like untouched blocks of clay that can be sculpted into other types of cells. Much of the controversy surrounding the cells focuses on embryonic stem cells, ones collected from human embryos. But the stem cells used in cosmetic procedures don't come from embryos. Instead, doctors isolate adult stem cells from a patient's own fat tissue.
Dr. Nathan Newman, a cosmetic surgeon in Beverly Hills, says that he has performed more than 200 of the procedures in the last five years. Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, a plastic surgeon who also practices in Beverly Hills, says that stem cell face-lifts are a booming business. "I've been performing about one every other day," he says.
Unlike traditional face-lifts, stem cell face-lifts involve no scalpels or incisions in the face, and there's no need for a general anesthesia, Newman says. Instead, he uses liposuction to collect fat from the patient, separates the stem cells from the fat, concentrates the cells and adds them back to the fat. He then injects the stem cell-enriched fat into strategic locations on the patient's face.
Ellenbogen's procedure is similar, although he says he uses a low-level laser to "activate" the stem cells before he injects them into the skin.
Newman charges between $5,500 and $9,500 for each procedure, depending on the amount of work a patient needs or wants. In addition to cosmetic face-lifts, Newman also uses the technique to improve the appearance of scars, including those left by cancer.
Ellenbogen charges $15,000 to $25,000 for a stem cell face-lift.
Newman says that he has had "fantastic results" with his stem cell face-lifts. According to Newman, the injections of fat help plump up the skin — creating a fuller, younger-looking face — while the stem cells rejuvenate the skin with new collagen and blood vessels. His website says that his "innovative, patent-pending" procedure creates "a more natural, youthful look" than traditional face-lifts.
Ellenbogen says stem cells have the potential to revolutionize cosmetic treatment. "I could show you pictures that would blow you away," he says. "Stem cells do things that nothing else can. There's no question that the skin will look wonderful within a week or two."
Stem cell face-lifts may sound futuristic, but they are not completely far-fetched, says Dr. J. Peter Rubin, an associate professor of plastic surgery and co-director of the Adipose Stem Cell Center at the University of Pittsburgh. Rubin is chairing a joint committee of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons that is currently looking into this very procedure.
Rubin says he's excited about the potential of stem cells in the cosmetic field and beyond. Still, he adds, there are many unanswered questions about the cosmetic use of stem cells, and anyone who claims to have already mastered the technique is jumping the gun. As Rubin puts it, "Claims are being made that are not supported by the evidence."
While researchers in Asia, Italy, Israel and elsewhere are reporting decent cosmetic results with injections of stem cell-enriched fat, Rubin says that nobody really knows how the stem cells themselves are behaving. He points out that fat injections alone can improve a person's appearance, no stem cells needed.
Rubin believes it's possible that injected stem cells could create new collagen and blood vessels — as they have been shown to do in animals studies — but such results have never been proved in humans. And, he adds, the long-term effects of the procedures are an open question.
Stem cell face-lifts could someday offer real advances, says Dr. Michael McGuire, president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and a clinical associate professor of surgery at UCLA. But he believes that scientists are still at least 10 years away from reliably harnessing stem cells to create new collagen and younger-looking skin. Until then, promises of a quick stem cell face-lift are a "scam," he says.
"This is just part of the quackery that surrounds stem cells," McGuire says. "Stem cells have incredible potential. But nobody knows exactly what they do. So they're marketed to do everything."
As for Ellenbogen's claim that a low-level laser can help activate the stem cells, McGuire says that "this is actually more fantastical than Dr. Newman's fantasy. There is no science to any of these claims."
Ellenbogen readily admits that he isn't a scientist, and he says he really doesn't know what the stem cells are doing once they reach the face. "I can't prove anything I do," he says. "But my patients look better."
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