Adipose stem cells (pictured) harvested from body fat. (Photo: Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News).
The discovery of abundant stem cell populations in body fat tissue changed everything the medical community thought it knew about stem cells overnight. Now, adipose stem cell therapies are driving the plastic and cosmetic surgery industries, and demand among patients keeps rising.
In 2001, researchers and plastic surgeons from the University of Pittsburgh discovered that human fat tissue is a very rich source of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), multipotent stromal cells that can differentiate into a variety of cell types. When their findings were published in Tissue Engineering Journal, the discovery stirred quite an epiphany in the medical and scientific community—until then, adult MSCs were predominantly believed to be strictly a bone marrow product.
Little did those researchers realize at the time that their discovery would revolutionize cosmetic surgery in less than a decade.
Adipose tissue offers distinct advantages over bone marrow tissue. Adipose fat is easier to extract than bone marrow, and the stem cell population contained in fat tissue is far more abundant than in bone marrow. One ounce of fat contains 300-500 times as many mesenchymal stem cells as an ounce of bone marrow. And unlike bone marrow, because of autologous adipose tissue’s copious stem cell count, most procedures using them do not require cells to be expanded in a lab, which means that most adipose stem cell therapies can be performed in the same operative procedure. Because bone marrow typically needs to be culture expanded for days in a lab before they can be re-injected back into a patient and adipose cells do not, there are plenty of advantages to adipose stem cell therapies.
Over the past 10 years, plastic surgeons have established safe and convenient ways to remove fat and isolate the stem cells for use in cosmetic procedures. And since adipose stem cells are extracted and reintroduced to the patient’s own body, the risk of rejection that goes with donor stem cells is eliminated. Scores of ongoing clinical trials using adipose stem cells have already proven their safety and efficacy in a variety of applications. Anti-aging therapies using adipose stem cells, for instance, have grown exponentially in popularity.
As we age, cells become progressively damaged over time from sun, toxins in the environment, and the natural loss of moisture that keeps youthful skin full and wrinkle-free. Adipose stem cells work to regenerate and repair that damaged tissue, and adjunctive treatments can potentially slow down or reverse the aging process. Those cells possess a unique anti-aging effect by means of regenerating and repairing organs—including skin—damaged by environmental elements we are exposed to in our daily life, and by improving immune functions.
This discovery has created an international demand for stem cell anti-aging therapies, which since these procedures are non-invasive (no surgery involved), make for a faster recovery and significantly less downtime for patients. Many patients and physicians feel that adipose stem cells also create a more natural appearance for recipients than traditional cosmetic surgery procedures. Some cosmetic stem cell physicians have taken it up a notch with cell assisted fat transfer, in which autologous adipose-derived (stromal) stem cells are used in combination with lipoinjection for even softer, more natural results.
Here’s how it works: a stromal vascular fraction (SVF) containing ASCs is freshly isolated from half of the aspirated fat and recombined with the other half. This process converts relatively ASC-poor aspirated fat to ASC-rich fat, reducing the potential for postoperative atrophy of injected fat to a minimal level, which clinical trials have found does not change substantially after two months.
Adipose Tissue as a Regenerative Therapy
While adipose tissue is a definitive source of stem cells, what if you don’t need to isolate or separate the stem cells to benefit from their regenerative powers?
Plastic surgeons have known for years that fat grafting itself, without extracting the stem cells, has regenerative properties. Cosmetic surgeons have developed safe and predictable techniques for fat grafting and have documented the regenerative effects of fat grafting in different tissues, for a variety of conditions and diseases. Adipose stem cell rich fat grafting has been documented to reverse radiation tissue damage, something that was considered irreversible until recently. Current clinical studies are documenting the regenerative effects of fat grafting in areas no one suspected, such as autoimmune diseases and degenerative joint disease. Unlike bone marrow tissue, adipose tissue is easy to extract, it’s abundant, and it’s effective in ways researchers have only begun to discover. Cell-assisted fat grafting serves a valuable role helping people with disfiguring injuries and birth defects. Plastic surgeons
Plastic surgeons have acquired decades of experience in harvesting and refining adipose tissue for treating patients. Thanks to the remarkable level of expertise they have developed with adipose tissue, experts now play a leading role in developing its evolving regenerative applications. Regenerative medicine is changing the landscape of cosmetic and reconstructive surgery, and aesthetic medicine—and it keeps getting better!