In the flesh: You might hate the fat on your thighs, but it could be the next big weapon in the fight against ageing

The Sunday Times 10 March 2013

Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could simply suck the fat off the bits of your body you seldom expose, mash it up and extract stem cells that would restore a plump, youthful glow to your face. Dr Alexis Verpaele, a Belgian plastic surgeon, believes he is about to prove it is possible. He has already used this “microfat” grafting treatment on more than 80 people over the past year and explained the process to hundreds of intrigued cosmetic doctors at medical conferences. His results will appear in a paper later this year. They build on pioneering work carried out in Seoul, South Korea, where surgeons have used regenerative stem cells derived from fat to treat Parry-Romberg syndrome, a rare genetic condition that causes the skin and underlying tissue in sections of the face to shrink and degenerate. Stem cells have the potential to become any type of specialist cells needed by the body. There are more than a dozen different varieties of cell already identified in skin structure alone. Verpaele is seeking to make use of stem cells from fat to achieve cosmetic rejuvenation of facial skin. He is pioneering a technique to extract and concentrate such cells from a patient’s own fat, from the thighs or stomach, and use them to fill out wrinkles and plump up the face. Although fat grafting has been used for decades to achieve a broad plumping effect, ordinary fat cells are too big to be used in the superfine needles now used for synthetic cosmetic fillers. According to Verpaele, injecting them with a bigger needle damages or kills most of the cells, and those that survive may form into tiny lumps along the line intended to be filled. Verpaele and his surgical partner, Dr Patrick Tonnard, who work at the Coupure Centrum in Ghent, have developed a method of separating stem cells from fat and putting them through a high-tech sieve. The resulting concentrated fatty emulsion of nano stem cells is then injected into the face, wrinkly décolletage or any other area that needs attention. They have found that fat stem cells not only work better and last longer than the increasingly controversial synthetic dermal fillers, but they also seem to improve irregular pigmentation, and can even be used to create an effective plumping layer just below the surface of the skin. Verpaele has begun training other surgeons in the technique, but it is not so far available in Britain, and he admits it is early days: “Stem cells seem to have a better contact surface with the surrounding tissue and they survive better,” he says. “We are still treating patients as a clinical trial, and observing the results. The process is no more painful than a bruise, takes 60-90 minutes and costs £650-£1,700.” Although Belgian micrografting is cheaper than British prices for cosmetic work, Verpaele admits there is no way of investigating what the stem cells are doing without chopping out and analysing a disfiguring chunk from the area treated, which would defeat the object. Further laboratory research, a longer timescale and more human patients are needed. Barry Jones, one of London’s top cosmetic surgeons, is a friend of Verpaele, but remains sceptical: “I’m just not convinced these fat cells survive,” he says. Nigel Mercer, a former president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, is equally doubtful. “When fat grafting first became popular, I used to mash it up, because in its natural state it’s very lumpy, and it just doesn’t take very well,” he says. Sofi Vandenburghe, a 34-year-old recruitment consultant and mother of two from Ghent, was one of Tonnard’s microfat guinea pigs six months ago. “I’ve had dark circles under my eyes since I was about 17, and I was fed up with people telling me I looked tired every day,” she says. “They offered me this treatment, and, quite honestly, I’m delighted with it.” The hour-long procedure was, however, more alarming than Verpaele suggests. Vandenburghe admits she was in a “total panic” when she saw the postoperative swelling and bruising round her eyes. “It was terrible. My younger brother told me I looked like an alien, and I did wonder if it would ever disappear. Although I’m happy now, for a long time I was very anxious about it. I had to go to work in sunglasses for three months.” Pain rating 1/5 Recovery time Three months Visible difference (1 None; 2 Good; 3 Dramatically Better) 3 Price £650-£1,700 Availability Factor in crossing the Channel.