Stem Cell Breast Reconstruction: Understanding the Issues

By J. Peter Rubin, MD Chief of Plastic Surgery University of Pittsburgh

Posted on | By J. Peter Rubin, MD

Stem cells have captured the imagination of the American public and offer great promise for new therapies in many areas of medical practice. In particular, the efforts to establish better therapies for breast reconstruction will improve the lives of cancer survivors and help restore a woman’s body to the natural form after cancer surgery. 

The new therapy that Suzanne Somers underwent is a minimally invasive method of restoring breast volume using fat moved from another part of the body. The field of fat grafting in plastic surgery has been in existence for several decades in the United States. The actual technique dates back over 100 years in medical literature, but a rise in popularity of fat grafting has been seen in recent years due to the development of specialized surgical instruments that are now widely available. 

The biggest problem encountered with fat grafting is that fat can lose volume or be absorbed by the body over time, leaving less of an affect from the original treatment. In this therapy, stem cells separated from a patient’s own fat tissue are mixed back with the fat graft to help enhance the healing of the fat graft.

While this technology is promising, we must not forget that this is an experimental treatment and should only be done as part of an approved clinical trial. There are several concerns that must be addressed and carefully studied before this therapy would be available for general use. These include the following:

1. The first concern is whether the stem cells that are used to enhance the fat grafting will stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells. Stem cells are useful in this situation because they act like little factories producing chemicals that can stimulate the healing process. In patients who have had radiation and scar tissue, this can potentially improve the blood supply to the tissues and give a better result from the fat-grafting procedure with increased retention of the volume of tissue that is placed. However, the same beneficial effect could also potentially stimulate the growth of cancer cells that are left behind the same area.

Article written by J. Peter Rubin, MD
Chief of Plastic SurgeryUniversity of Pittsburgh