Hope Chest

Written by Leah Lemoine Category: Health & Fitness Issue: April 2012

That’s how advocates of stem-cell breast augmentation characterize the procedure: as a natural – and, yes, organic – alternative to saline and silicone implants. Popularized by such high-profile patients as Suzanne Somers, the procedure siphons fat from patients’ “problem areas” – most often the stomach, thighs and back – and repurposes it in the breasts. If there could be such a thing as a “fair trade boob job,” this is it.

“This is for the person who says, ‘I would never consider an implant, but I want fuller breasts and more cleavage,’” says Dr. Todd Malan of Innovative Cosmetic Surgery Center in Scottsdale, one of the first doctors in the U.S. to spearhead this technology. “They want to feel natural and full and to have natural-looking cleavage.”

The secret to the natural look lies in the nature of stem cells. While fat stem cells cannot morph into as many different types of cells as embryonic stem cells, they carry less controversial baggage, and if taken from the patient’s own body, are less likely to elicit an immune system rejection. When injected into the breast, the fat stem cells help create blood vessels to sustain tissue growth, plus release anti-inflammatory substances that speed up healing. 

Stem-cell breast augmentation originated in the cosmetic surgery boom of the 1980s but was quickly banned in the U.S. because it was considered too adventurous by the mainstream medical community. However, it gained currency in Japan, where doctors used it in post-mastectomy breast reconstruction for cancer survivors. In 2009, the ban was lifted in the U.S. after technological advancements in liposuction and fat injection made the procedure safer. Current protocols call for surgeons to separate and remove dead cells from the harvested fat using a water-jet device. The roux of fat deposits and stem cells is then injected into the breasts using tiny syringes.

Stem-cell technology has uses beyond the cosmetic – studies have shown that stem cells harvested from fat can repair damaged organs, muscles, tendons and ligaments, and treat degenerative diseases. Industry experts are hopeful but wary of its cosmetic use. “The marketing has advanced beyond the science,” says Dr. J. Peter Rubin, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the University of Pittsburgh and a spokesman for the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. “Everybody loves stem cells, but there’s no well-controlled human data that shows it’s better than fat grafts without stem cells. Everything is anecdotal, not scientific. We need to exercise caution and good judgment and be driven to find data.”

Malan has performed more than 200 stem-cell breast augmentations, which cost $18,000 to $22,000, since the ban was lifted in 2009. Patients are advised to gain weight “judiciously” after the surgery, leading to fat gain centralized in the breasts and a one- to two-cup-size increase, Malan says. The fat stays put because it is injected into the tissue of the breasts, rather than over or under the muscles like implants.“I compare the injected fat to rice pudding,” Malan says. “It moves around and goes wherever it needs to go.”

“It’s so much more natural,” says a Valley patient who asked to identified only by her first name, Suellen. “It’s still me and my fat; it’s not a foreign object in my body. It’s just fuller and more like I used to be before I had kids.”