Stem Cells and Plastic Surgery
There’s so much noise in the market about stem cell treatments it’s hard to know what to think. Local interest was sparked a few years ago by articles like this one on stem cells in the New York Times. Characteristic of the debate today, a dermatologist and proponent of using stem cells to rejuvenate the face stated that stem cells bring back a youthful glow. In that same article, a plastic surgeon said she believes most facial stem cell treatments are no more than fat grafting with a few stem cells “coming along for the ride.”
Together with most board certified plastic surgeons and other conscientious physicians, we advise patients take a “wait and see” attitude toward stem cell treatments. We believe they have the potential to offer benefit, but the medical community is far from understanding just how they work and what applications are appropriate.
Risks of Disappointment and Worse
If patients only risked spending money in vain, that would be one thing. In fact, the risks of electing stem cell treatment go further than that. A report published in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, found that clinics around the world have jumped on the stem cell bandwagon. They offer stem cell procedures for facelifts, breast augmentation and even vaginal rejuvenation. The article noted that many “operate without credible scientific merit, oversight, or other patient protection.” It’s the same formula used in many corners of the world to attract patients with money to spend: irresistible marketing, yes; lower cost, probably; patient safety, maybe.
Even in the United States and right here in New York, stem cell treatments are often promoted by doctors who are not board certified plastic surgeons. Any physician can draw blood, spin it in a centrifuge and re-inject the fluid—and presto, a stem cell facelift is added to the menu (and the bottom line) of the practice. As one of our colleagues in Florida, Dr. Bosshart, points out in an online response to a patient, when the stem cell facelift is your only tool, everyone’s a candidate.
Remember the old saying: when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail? In contrast, board certified plastic surgeons have a full complement of surgical and less invasive procedures, and the ability to customize a plan that is just right for each patient.
More Serious Risks of Stem Cell Treatment
If we haven’t convinced you to “wait and see” so far, an Internet search on the risks of stem cell injections should do the trick. You can find disasters associated with stem cell injections to the eyes and knees, for example, and for diseases like cancer.
One tragic story was reported in another article in the New York Times. Stem cells injected into a patient in foreign clinics cause a large tumor to grow on the spine. According to the Times, doctors have been unable to figure out how to stop the aggressive mass—made up of primitive cells from another person—from growing.
Even aesthetic treatment with stem cells can go awry. A few years ago, Scientific American published an article highlighting the case of a California woman, whose $20,000 “stem cell facelift” resulted in the growth of bone fragments around her eyes. Suffering pain, swelling, a droopy eyelid and a strange clicking sound, the woman turned to another surgeon for help. This second surgeon surmised that the stem cells reacted with a dermal filler known to prompt stem cells to turn into bone.
Turning back to the words of our Florida colleague, “Those who perform these procedures promote them as though we have a good understanding of what stem cells do and how to control their effects. In point of fact, we don’t.”
Not Worth the Risk
If you’re skeptical about warnings from plastic surgeons about alternative procedures, read the risks of stem cell treatment published three months ago by the FDA:
• Reactions at the injection site
• The ability of cells to move, change and multiply
• Failure of cells to work as planned
• Tumor growth
From our point of view, it’s telling that most respected, board certified plastic surgeons like Dr. Bosshart do not offer cosmetic surgery based on stem cell injections. In our New York practice, we don’t either. We rely on safe, effective, FDA-approved procedures that have stood the test of time. If and when we can add stem cell treatment to this list, we will.