The Surgeon Minute

Stem Cell Research: Is the verdict still out?

Stem Cell Research: Is the verdict still out?

There are few buzzwords bigger than stem cells in the world of western medicine. Do they work or don’t they? What exactly do they do, anyway? Some research is in but the jury’s still out. As Dr. Robert Grant explains it, the stem cell marketing campaigns might not be so interested in waiting to officially extol their products’ powers.

By Robert T. Grant, MD
and Chris Knisley

What Are We Really Dealing With?

Dr. Grant is quick to point out that much of the positive research promoting stem cell effectiveness is coming from procedures involving conventional fat grafting. The primary purpose of fat grafting is to use a patient’s own fat to provide volume where they need it. Inside the transplanted fat exists stem cells, but how many there are and what precisely they do is still being researched.

While fat-grafting has shown great potential in certain areas of plastic and reconstructive surgery, the research has yet to identify stem cells as an active agent. We only know that they are there.


Fat grafting has become a popular technique with many different applications and has been claimed to have great effect in many areas. “The addition of volume, with either a filler or with fat-grafting, has been one of the great advances,” says Dr. Grant. “And yes, there are stem cells that are in fat when it’s transplanted.”

The Studies

The science community cannot claim with any certainty that stem cells affect the quality of a result. Dr. Grant puts it this way:

“We can’t say with any scientific certainty that those stem cells are exactly the cause of what is being reported by some of these authors.”

The research has yet to show the missing link. For now, claims about the effectiveness of stem cells remain a marketing ploy. “Unfortunately, stem cells – for all of the pizzazz associated with the term – aren’t yet ready for prime time,” says Grant.

The Verdict

Stem cells in fat are still a mystery. Surgeons know they’re in there, and also that they seem to provide some benefit to the area where the fat is added. “Seem to” and “might” are not science, however, so before physicians can market stem cells as part of a face lift, research must be able to provide proof. Any current claim that stem cells are actively providing benefit is a marketing claim and not a scientific claim.

“Lots of science and research is going in to their use and ways that we can manipulate them,” says Grant. “But, unfortunately, if a surgeon or a doctor says to you that my technique uses stem cells and therefore I can get a better, long-term result, they’re really talking to you about their marketing and not their true outcomes.”

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