In a small study, nearly four-fifths of women who got injections of stem cells derived from their own fat tissue were satisfied with the cosmetic results.
During a lumpectomy, surgeons take out only the tumor and surrounding tissue, sparing the remainder of the breast. Radiation is typically given afterward to kill any missed cancer cells.
While the goal is to preserve as much of the breast as possible, the procedures can leave a woman with a scarred, misshapen, and cratered breast.
Currently, there's not much doctors can offer these women, says Eric Daniels, MD, a surgeon at Cytori Therapeutics. Cytori developed the device used in the stem cell treatment but was not involved in the new study.
"The defect is too small to make her a candidate for the breast implants [offered to women who have a breast removed during a mastectomy]," he says.
Doctors can try rearranging the breast tissue that is left or modifying the other breast to match the flawed one, says Sameer Patel, MD, a reconstructive surgeon at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia that was not involved with the work.
But this involves surgery and can leave additional scars. "It's far from ideal," he tells WebMD.
Stem Cells Overcome Problems With Fat Implants
Patel says that injections of fat tissue have been tried, but the fat is often reabsorbed or dies.
That happens, he says, primarily because of a poor blood supply between the implanted fat cells and the breast cells.
That's where stem cells -- those miraculous master cells that have the potential to form many other types of cells -- come in.
While the research is still early, it is thought that the stem cells develop into the cells needed to form new blood vessels.
"The stem cells likely stimulate the breast tissue to make new blood vessels," Daniels says. The new blood vessels supply oxygen and nourishment to the implanted cells, keeping the graft alive.
It's possible, but unlikely, that the procedure actually builds new fat tissue, he says.
Stem Cell Injections Increase Breast Thickness
The new study involved 21 women who had undergone a lumpectomy. Using liposuction, fat was removed from their abdomens, hips, thighs, or lower backs. Half was set aside as the main implant material.
Using Cytori's device, the rest of the fat was processed so that only stem cells and other types of tissue capable of regeneration were left behind.
The stem cell juice was then combined with the reserved fat and injected into the area of the breast defect. The procedure takes about three hours.
Six months after treatment, 79% of 19 women surveyed were satisfied with the results, says researcher Keizo Sugimachi, MD, president of Kyushu Central Hospital in Fukuoka, Japan. He presented the findings here at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.
In addition, the improvement in breast tissue thickness that was observed at one month persisted at six months.
That's how the researchers know it is working, Daniels says. If the fat tissue hadn't been supercharged, a portion probably would have died off during the six-month period, he tells WebMD.
"The work is in its infancy but shows a lot of promise," Patel says.
Cytori Therapeutics plans to undertake two additional studies of the technique in Europe and Japan next year.