Photo: © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation
Talk about reduce, reuse, recycle: Plastic surgeons in Japan, Europe, and Israel are harvesting fat and stem cells from hips and thighs to sculpt bigger, shapelier breasts without the leaks, slippage, and short shelf life that often accompany saline and silicone implants.
At least that's the claim. The procedure is controversial among researchers in the United States (it's not available here...yet—human studies could begin in the next three to five years). "These are adult stem cells, not embryonic cells, so the concern isn't an ethical one about an embryonic source," says J. Peter Rubin, MD, co-director of the Adipose Stem Cell Center at the University of Pittsburgh and co-founder and chairman of the International Federation of Adipose Therapeutics and Science. "Stem cells from fat tissue can turn into blood vessels and make new fat cells, so they could create long-lasting tissue for breast augmentation and reconstruction. But there are safety issues."
Cancer, for one. "We don't know yet whether these cells have the potential to go awry and become tumor cells themselves or whether they could influence cancer cells left behind in breast cancer patients undergoing reconstruction," Rubin says. "We also don't know whether injecting fat into the breast could obscure small cancers normally detected by mammograms."
The longest-running human study to date, following 40 Japanese women for up to three and a half years, found that breasts shrunk a bit in the months after surgery, but the women were still two to three cup sizes larger. Lead researcher Kotaro Yoshimura, MD, a University of Tokyo plastic surgeon who pioneered this technique, acknowledged that small cysts and calcifications did form in some of the women's breasts—but he didn't think they would interfere with cancer detection.
Ultimately, cost may limit the procedure's use: Women participating in the study paid 2.4 million Japanese yen—about $25,000—to have it done.