Stem Cells Help Reconstruct Cancer Patient's Breast

A cutting-edge technique uses a woman's own stem cells to try to repair disfigured breasts

A potentially revolutionary way to help breast cancer survivors uses a woman's own stem cells to repair missing or disfigured breasts. A clinical trial is under way right here in Southern California.

Kymberly Chandler lost her right breast, and is reminded of the devastating nature of breast cancer every time she gets dressed. She uses scarves to hide the side of her body that doesn't have a breast so that people don't stare.

Surgery and radiation to remove the cancer left her skin so damaged it wouldn't even hold a breast implant.

"It's really thin, it's not viable, just won't hold together," Chandler said.

Now she is participating in a clinical trial that will attempt to use her own stem cells to help reconstruct her breast. 

To do this, Dr. Joel Aronowitz starts by removing fat from Chandler's stomach through liposuction. A lab technician then extracts millions of stem cells that are in the fat.

"Then she will take those cells, which amount to somewhere in the neighborhood of a million cells per drop, and concentrate those cells and give them back to me," Aronowitz said.

He takes the solution and then injects it, along with a little of the fat itself, into the breast to give it volume.

"When we transfer those cells from one place in her body, a woman's hips to her breast or another place in the body, that fat has to gain a blood supply in order to live in that new place," Aronowitz said.

"It only has a few hours to gain a blood supply, and then it will die and melt away. What we're trying to do is to enhance the survival of that fat, and then help it to expand and grow, and thrive in that new area," Aronowitz said.

That's what the stem cells are supposed to do, as well as help heal damaged breast tissue.

"They help form new tissue; they help form new fat by encouraging the growth of blood vessels, by encouraging the growth of other cells to become stem cells," Aronowitz said.

A few weeks after the procedure, Chandler is doing well, has more volume in her breast and feels better about her appearance.

"So I feel like I'm complete again. My clothes fit better. That's the best part," Chandler said.

The clinical trial is enrolling patients. So far, the results are encouraging, with few complications, but not definitive. Time will tell how well the stem cells work in the long run.

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