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Would Researchers Please Identify the Cellulite Gene?

WebMD Health News

July 4, 2000 -- It's bikini season. Thousands are surging to the beaches, cottage-cheese thighs gleaming in the sun. There's only one word for that dimply skin, and it's cellulite -- an ages-old, international scourge. From the French Riviera to the Caribbean to the Mississippi River Basin, sun-loving girls just want to have fun -- and cellulite can dampen the mood.

Doctors say that cellulite takes shape like an "overstuffed chair" -- when connective tissues underneath the skin become stuffed with fat, toxins or fluid, dimpling occurs. Others say that it's age-related; when the bands that form connective tissue begin to shorten, they pull at the skin.

Cellulite plagues women more than men, simply because of estrogen and thin skin. Estrogen drives the fluid buildup in fatty tissue. Men have thicker skin -- literally -- so their superficial fat does not show so easily. And genetics are a driving force. If Mom had a bad case of cellulite, chances are her daughter will, too. Fat women are just as prone as thin women. Even young girls can get bad cases of cellulite.

The bottom line: over time, those small, stuffed pockets will harden and grow -- and become more difficult to erase. Ads for miracle creams, special extracts, and herbal drinks promise that legs will "rapidly improve in appearance" -- at least in badly lit, black-and-white photographs. Some doctors and their patients swear by liposuction, a fat-removal technique that has been fine-tuned over the last few years.

Will researchers ever find that cellulite gene? Until they do, what are the best options?

In the heart of Tennessee, baby pigs are getting daily massages -- deep-muscle Swedish massages -- to help researchers better understand one cellulite treatment called endermology. Developed in Europe, endermology has won the FDA's blessing as a treatment that "temporarily decreases the appearance of cellulite."

Bruce Shack, MD, chair of plastic surgery at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, is in charge of the piglet research program. Endermology works to smooth out those dimples and ripples via a vacuum-like device, explains Shack. Equipped with rollers, it both sucks and massages the skin. While used extensively in Europe, endermology has only been available in the U.S. for the past three years.

In their initial study, Shack gave treatments to 10 young pigs, whose skin is similar to human skin. Some were treated daily for four weeks, some for 10 weeks, some for 20 weeks. Researchers found a "surprising, and very dramatic increase in subcutaneous collagen," a substance in the body that helps skin keep its youthful appearance. They also found that the 'strings' attached at the muscle level were looser and had lost their indentation, creating a smooth surface.

However, he admits, "It probably doesn't last forever. We've likened it to a callus. If you work with your hands [you get] thickened skin. If you stop, the calluses go away."

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