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Stem cells: the Holy Grail?

Stem cells are causing a buzz in all arenas, from skincare to health care. Sydney plastic surgeon Dr John Flood is one of the Australians pioneering the use of stem cells in rehabilitative and aesthetic medicine. He is at the forefront of discoveries into the use of stem cells for regenerating tissue, alleviating pain and – quite literally – reversing the signs of ageing from within.

‘We use autologous, adipose-derived stem cells, which are stem cells taken from the patient’s own adipose tissue, or fat,’ Dr Flood explains. ‘We harvest the stem cells while the patient is under local anaesthetic – usually from the love-handles, where most people have pockets of fat. The sample is centrifuged in a lab and the stem cells are purified. Importantly, we use a regulated and certified lab, where there is no chance of bacterial contamination or cross contamination. The stem cells are then inserted into syringes and returned for use in the clinic.’

Stem cells for treating sports injuries and facial pain

Dr Flood’s journey into the use of stem cells began in the area of rehabilitation. He worked with musculoskeletal physicians to treat sports injuries in athletes.‘We saw fantastic results, which were reflected by very strong evidence seen in various animal studies,’ says Dr Flood. ‘I witnessed athletes, who were in a lot of pain from joint injuries, become pain-free within a week.’

Expanding from here, Dr Flood moved into treating patients with neuropathic facial pain – a condition of chronic pain that has no detectable cause. He and maxillofacial surgeon Dr Russell Vickers saw approximately 50 percent reduction in facial pain using stem cells, and their work has been accepted for publication in an international journal.

‘Many patients relied on medication because they couldn’t bear the pain, but then they couldn’t handle the side effects of the medication,’ Dr Flood explains. ‘The stem cell injections stopped this reliance and greatly improved quality of life. people went from not being able to sleep, and experiencing depression, to having their life back due to pain relief.’

Stem cells for aesthetics

It was the treatment of one particular patient that inspired Dr Flood’s investigation into using stem cells in the cosmetic arena. This patient had developed facial pain unexpectedly in her mid 20s. Though she had tried a number of therapies, including muscle relaxant injections, to soothe the facial pain and muscular contortion, no treatment had worked and she had developed right hemifacial atrophy – where the tissue on one side of her face had shrunk and degenerated.

‘We injected stem cells into her right temporal region, where she felt the pain originated from,’ he says. ‘After three months she could sleep better, she was taking less pain medication and, surprisingly, her facial atrophy had corrected and her brow spasm had resolved. We’d not been expecting that when we started treatment. The tissue appeared fuller and she was ecstatic. She had less distortion, fuller contours and felt her appearance had returned to what it was before she developed neuropathic facial pain.’

This regenerative result comes from the multiple actions of stem cells and the profound effect of their secretions into the surrounding tissue.

‘Ten years ago, the research into stem cells revolved around differentiation, or adult stem cell renewal – for example adipose stem cells renew into fat cells, and dermal stem cells renew into dermal cells,’ Dr flood explains. ‘Now the thinking has evolved, and we realise that adult stem cells – no matter what their origin – will stimulate the activity of the surrounding stem cells, regardless of their differentiation paths.’

How stem cells work

When adipose-derived stem cells are injected into skin and subcutaneous tissue, they release chemical factors to increase blood vessel formation and boost nutrient and blood infusion to the area. As well as increasing vascularity, the injected stems cells also stimulate the surrounding stem cells – for example dermal stem cells – to regenerate.

‘Adipose stem cells could signify the holy grail of anti-ageing; they work to increase blood flow, stimulate activity of the surrounding stem cells and, because they renew into fat cells, they provide added plumping to the treated area,’ Dr Flood explains. ‘They act like a conductor of an orchestra – triggering and accelerating natural tissue regeneration, to treat the skin from within.’

According to Dr Flood, the use of stem cells could have implications not only as a stand-alone anti-ageing treatment, but also to assist in the use of implants and grafts in aesthetic and reconstructive surgeries.

‘Their capacity to improve vascularity can potentially aid in graft or implant adherence to the surrounding tissue,’ he says. ‘The whole process of ageing is related to wear, oxidation and inflammation – stem cells release factors to counter this wear, reduce inflammation and fight free radicals. Autologous adipose-derived stem cells work to regenerate the tissue, improve vascularity, combat ageing and give rise to new fat cells to return lustre and vibrancy to the treatment area,’ Dr Flood concludes.

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