Suzanne Somers was on Good Morning America Monday morning talking about her experience undergoing a controversial new breast-reconstruction procedure involving her own stem cells.
Somers, 65, had a lumpectomy and radiation treatment for breast cancer in 2000. A vocal proponent of dietary supplement use and other forms of alternative and complementary medicine, Somers says in a statement on her Web site her cancer treatment left her right breast two cup sizes smaller than her healthy breast and flattened like a “pancake.” But she opted against getting an implant, she writes, because “with the number of known complications I wasn’t willing to risk it.”
Instead, Somers elected to undergo a procedure called adipose-derived stem cell surgery. A variation on the common fat-grafting breast reconstruction procedure in which fat tissue is removed from one part of the body (often the abdomen) and placed, along with muscle tissue and blood vessels, in the breast, this process emphasizes the gleaning of stem cells along with the fat. The removed tissue is processed in the operating room to increase the concentration of stem cells. The resulting substance is injected into the breast, where the stem cells are supposed to mature and regenerate.
Somers notes that while it’s still too early to report long-term results, “the initial results are nothing short of miraculous.” You can watch detailed (some might say graphic) videos of Somers’s procedure here (after submitting an e-mail address).
One of the procedure’s potential risks is that injected stem cell mix might encourage the growth of cancer cells in the breast. But research published in January 2011 suggests that the procedure is safe if there are no active cancer cells extant in the breast.
Somers says she could have gone to Japan for her surgery, as the doctor who has pioneered the approach has performed the procedure many times there. Instead, she says, she arranged to have the surgery performed in Los Angeles by plastic surgeon Joel Aronowitz in what she hopes will serve as the first U.S. clinical trial for the procedure and pave the way for FDA approval of the technique.
Karol Gutowski, a plastic surgeon practicing in Chicago and a member of a joint task force of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, addressing the use of stem cells and fat grafting in breast reconstruction, says the procedure may end up proving valuable, but “the long-term results, we don’t know. They’re still being sorted out.”
As yet, Gutowski says, “there are no studies” demonstrating that fat grafts with stem cells are effective. “Do stem cells make a difference? There are no large, well-done human clinical trials” that show they offer any improvement over regular fat grafts. (Gutowski points out that insurance doesn’t even cover regular fat-grafting breast reconstruction procedures, so it’s not likely that stem-cell procedures would be covered, either.)
As for Somers, Gutowski says, “She’s always going to be just one case. People are going to have to do a hundred cases and compare them with another hundred control cases.”
What if one of Gutowski’s patients should request a procedure such as the one Somers has undergone? “I would discuss it with the patient,” he says. “But it would be a long discussion.”