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Stem Cell Facelifts – Not Ready for Primetime

Stem cells have revolutionised medicine, allowing doctors to generate tissue to help heal conditions from heart disease to spinal cord injury. For increasingly popular aesthetic treatments like the stem cell facelift, the source of these stem cells is normally adipose tissue, otherwise known as fat.

But is it really stem cells that are being harvested? And are the treatments truly safe?

“Currently the only scientifically proven medical treatment using stem cells with a decent history of success is bone marrow transplants. But that doesn’t stop people from offering dangerous, expensive and unproven treatments, here and overseas. I’m concerned that people might think that treatments like these are safe because they’re using the patient’s own cells.” – National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia

What Is a Stem Cell Facelift?

The term “stem cell facelift” is something of a misnomer as there is no actually lifting of the facial skin and no surgery is required. The treatment is usually performed without general anaesthesia.

First patients choose the area of unwanted fat that they wish to be removed, usually on the stomach or thigh. Anaesthesia is injected to numb the area where the fat will beharvested by a modified mini-liposuction using special instruments.

The harvested fat is processed to concentrate the stem cells and is prepared for injection. Finally, the face is anaesthetised using local anaesthesia and the fat is injected into the desired areas using specially designed instruments.

What Patients Say About Stem Cell Facelifts

Proponents of stem cell face-lifts are convinced that adding extra stem cells to injected fat is the ticket to better skin.They say a youthful glow comes back to skin because of growth factors produced by the stem cells that doesn’t happen by injecting fat alone.

Many patients are raving about the results. One patient shared her thoughts on the walk-in/walk-out treatment with the online Huffington Post. She was astounded by how painless and easy it all was and characterised the experience as easier than a trip to the dentist.

“Before I had the stem cell lift, I had a traditional facelift and I can tell you between the two, I would not have a regular facelift again,” – Eva Morales, stem cell facelift patient

Despite anecdotal enthusiasm, the treatment has its detractors.

Keeping an Eye on Stem Cell Facelifts

“You won’t find a bigger proponent of stem cell technology than me,” said Dr. Peter Rubin, a director of the Adipose Stem Cell Centre at the University of Pittsburgh. “But I’m also a fan of something called evidence-based medicine. If doctors are making claims of better outcomes, we need hard data that supports that.”

In May 2011, a joint task force created by the American Society for Plastic Surgeons and the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery issued a position statement on the topic.  The pronouncement came after the analysis of thousands of peer-reviewed articles published in medical journals on the use of stem cells in aesthetic procedures,

Shockingly, they found only about a dozen that provided any real clinical data on aesthetic use because very little of this research has been done in randomised controlled settings.

So What’s Really Happening?

One of the major objections with stem cell facelifts is that the treatment is poorly regulated. Some clinics argue that stem cells are tissue transplants rather than biological drugs, and therefore don’t need to be held to the same testing standards.

Without regulations in place, who is ensuring that practitioners of this therapy are doing right by their patients? That is the million-dollar question, or, more precisely, the $3,500 question, since that’s about how much Australians pay for a stem cell facelift.