The first question that needs to be asked is: ” What is a stem cell?” Let me answer that question in a way that is easily understandable by everyone. A friend of mine recently had a skin cancer removed from his face. The surgeon removed the cancerous tissue and some surrounding good tissue to be sure all of the cancer was removed. Then the surgeon reconstructed my friend’s face by grafting some skin tissue removed from the back onto his face.
This is a very common technique and the skin removed from the back should grow and become functional skin tissue on the face. Now, just suppose that my friend had a damaged heart that needed surgery. Could a surgeon remove some skin tissue from the back and use it to repair my friends heart? The answer is no. Skin tissue can not become heart tissue and heart tissue can not become skin tissue. Scientists say that skin tissue and heart tissue are differentiated. The same concept applies to nerve cell tissue, bone cells, liver cells, and many other cells in the human body. They are differentiated.
There exists inside the human body cells that are undifferentiated. These cells are called stem cells. A stem cell is essentially a cell that has not yet “grown up” and decided to become part of the system. The wonderful thing about a stem cell is that it can become a skin cell, or a nerve cell, or a bone cell, or almost any cell.
If a competent surgeon, in theory at the moment, had several large tablespoons of your stem cells, he could use them to repair your heart, or your brain, or your liver. The question is where would the surgeon obtain these stem cells? This was a serious problem until recently.
Stem cells were first obtained from an aborted human fetus. In the U.S., abortion is legal in the first three months of pregnancy. However, there is serious debate about abortion. Some people believe that abortion should be illegal and never performed except in the rare cases where a woman’s life is in serious danger. Others believe that abortion is a woman’s choice and that she alone can make that decision. So when medical researchers stated that they were going to use stem cells from aborted human fetuses to do additional medical research, the anti-abortion groups opposed this. This became a political issue and stem cell research began to slow and grants were not available for stem cell research that involved an aborted human fetus.
In 1999, a medical doctor was performing a liposuction operation and he reportedly removed two gallons of fat from a patient. Liposuction is the removal of fat from a person by a doctor using a special machine that allows the doctor to vacuum fat from beneath the skin. It can be a cosmetic operation or a medical operation necessary to the patient’s health. The doctor who removed the two gallons of fat was Dr. Marc Hedrick. Dr. Hedrick began to wonder if the removed fat contained stem cells. No one knew if they were present or absent from fat tissue.
Dr. Hedrick recruited a reseacher to assist him named Dr. Min Zhu. Dr. Zhu, using high technology, did indeed extract stem cells from the fat tissue, but Dr. Zhu was not able to get the stem cells to grow or differentiate. She finally got the cells to grow and differentiate when she began “feeding” the stem cells blood.
On a personal note, I was not at all surprised that Dr. Zhu used this approach. I have been a herpetologist for over fifty years. While herpetology was a hobby, I studied the field from a serious scientific perspective. Herpetology involves studying snakes, turtles, and lizards. When some lizards lose a tail or a foot, they simply grow a new one. This fascinated me as to how a lizard could do this. I found the answer about twenty years ago from a researcher who correctly stated that lizards used blood cells to create undifferentiated “lizard” stem cells and then simply grew a new tail or foot.
So, now that these two doctors can grow stem cells, what are they going to do with them? Will these stem cells, obtained from fat, be used to repair hearts, livers, or the nervous system? The answer is no. The doctors plan to use the cells to help women grow bigger breasts.
Before you reach the conclusion that this only involves a cosmetic approach, lets look at some facts. Anytime a new procedure is used in the U.S., it must be evaluated. It is scientifically easier to evaluate breast growth than to evaluate operations that involve a liver, kidney, spleen, or the central nervous system.
In 2009, women paid about $960 Million to plastic surgeons for breast augumentation surgeries. However, there is much more to the story. Breast cancer is a problem in the U.S. Breast cancer rates in women in 1975 were 105 cases for every 100,000 women. ( Breast cancer in men is almost unknown. However, some cases have been reported.) Since 1975, that number increased in some years and then decreased. I am going to use 105 as an average for a calculation in a moment. The good news is that the breast cancer survival rate has increased to a rate of 90% survival after five years.
Due to our incompetent and uncaring health care system in the U.S., only 30% of women who need a mastectomy are ever referred to a plastic surgeon for consultation. Only 25% of women who lose a breast to cancer get a new one.
There are two genetic tests that correlate with breast cancer. They are BRCA-1 and BRCA-2. Women who test positive on these tests are 500% more likely than the normals to get breast cancer. As a mathematician, let me convert these numbers to probabilities. Using the 105 figure mentioned above, that means a woman has a probability of 0.105% of getting breast cancer in her life. That is about one-tenth of one percent. That is a small probability. Now lets compute the probability of a woman who tests positive on BRCA. The computation 0.105% x 500% = 0.525%. This means that a woman who is BRCA positive, and has NO signs of cancer, has the probability of getting breast cancer of 0.525%. This is a probability of just over one-half of one percent. Yet, about 56% of women who develop cancer in one breast, if they are told they are BRCA positive, choose to have the healthy breast removed also. I wonder if they really understand the low probability involved?
In the 1940’s liquid silicone was injected into the breast for breast enlargement. This was not a safe procedure. In 1962, silicone implants proved to be safer. Hopefully, human stem cells obtained from body fat, will become a treatment for breast restoration in the 21st. Century. Also, it is hoped that the stem cells obtained from body fat will be used to treat and hopefully cure many conditions in the 21st. Century.
R. Van Conoley