Stem cell therapies are getting a lot of attention lately for their potential to address health conditions like osteoarthritis, heart disease, spinal cord injuries and strokes. But the keyword here is “potential.” While some therapeutic uses for stem cells are already used on a regular basis — like stem cell transplants for some leukemia patients — there’s still a lot we don’t know about all the different applications purported to treat a wide variety of conditions.
This uncertainty about potential future uses for stem cells is most visible when it comes to stem cell banking. For example, many soon-to-be or new parents are approached by companies that offer umbilical cord blood collection and storage as a sort-of insurance policy for a child’s future health. The problem is that at this point, we don’t yet know whether the stem cells in umbilical cord blood will be at all useful to the child in the future.
Now, other companies are getting in on the stem-cells-as-insurance game, offering banking services following other procedures, like liposuction. But is there any benefit to this type of stem cell banking, or is this another profit-driven enterprise? We spoke to some experts as well as a company that’s offering this service to get more information.
What are stem cells?
According to recent research published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine pivot on using a type of cell, called a stem cell, to treat illnesses.
Per the National Institute of Health, stem cells are cells that can adapt and renew themselves — even after long periods of inactivity. Under certain conditions, stem cells can also merge with specific organs or tissue systems, which means they have the ability to repair and regenerate different types of tissues throughout the body. Stem cells are obtained via various sources, such as bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, cord tissue and adipose fat tissue.
What is fat stem cell biobanking?
Adipose fat tissue is loose connective fat tissue used to store energy as well as to cushion and insulate the body. More important, the stem cells found in adipose fat tissue have the capacity for self-renewal and differentiation, which some have suggested may make them good candidates for banking.
Forever Labs — which bills itself as the first company to biobank young adult stem cells — is now offering adipose fat stem cell biobanking. Specifically, the service is offered for those undergoing liposuction as an option to also collect, freeze and bank stem cells from fat tissue already removed in the process of the liposuction procedure.
“The fat-banking procedure will allow the thousands who undergo liposuction to take full advantage of their cells that would have otherwise been discarded,” Steven Clausnitzer, Forever Labs CEO and cofounder, said in a statement emailed to SheKnows. “Banking these cells today provides you with an extraordinary investment for your future health.”
Clausnitzer tells SheKnows there are “copious amounts” of stem cells found in the fat removed during the liposuction procedure. “In particular, mesenchymal stem cells are being used in over 700 clinical trials to treat age-related diseases like cardiovascular diseases, stroke, Alzheimer’s, you name it … As you age, your stem cells decline in function, and you’re going to want to have access to the best possible cells later in life,” he adds.
Much like the companies urging parents to collect and bank their child’s umbilical cord blood, Forever Labs is banking on the idea that people will want to pay to store their stem cells in the hopes that at some point in the future, they will have a clear therapeutic use.
“You basically have these stem cells, and you have this byproduct of a medical procedure — and you can take advantage of it,” Forever Labs cofounder Dr. Mark Katakowski tells SheKnows.
Is banking fat stem cells a good investment?
Despite the excitement surrounding the possible benefits of stem cell therapies and post-lipo biobanking, some experts warn that more research is needed to better understand how well the treatments actually work. Like umbilical cord blood banking, the potential benefits of fat stem cell banking are not yet clearly defined, Dr. Scott Newman, a physician, tells SheKnows.
“The question of how good an idea this is really lies in a lot of unknowns,” he explains. “In this case, if someone is having liposuction anyway, then the only negative here is the cost of this storage process… The advantages are difficult to assess.”
In other words, while there are no health risks associated with banking fat stem cells because they would have been discarded anyway, it’s not yet clear whether banking them will be a good financial investment.
“The best analogy I can give is to imagine an insurance policy that has a guaranteed cost (premium), and if an event occurs that is covered by the insurance, the policy might pay out. The costs are there, but if needed, the benefits are not guaranteed,” Newman says.
So, does it pay to be optimistic? With medical technology constantly advancing and the use of stem cells increasing, should we be banking on fat stem cells?
“Stem cells are being used more and more in health care,” Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a physician and director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at the Mount Sinai Hospital, tells SheKnows. “We don’t yet know what the future will bring in terms of available stem cell technologies,” he says.
While many experts extol the virtues of stem cell therapies (and the jury’s still out for others), the FDA warns that while many stem cell treatments look promising for a variety of health conditions, misleading or unethical stem cell clinics do exist.
As with any medical procedure, it’s important to do your research beforehand. Make sure you’re seeing properly licensed medical health professionals for any stem cell therapies you’re considering, and be sure to discuss any potential side effects with your doctor before scheduling your procedure.
And when it comes to banking stem cells — whether they’re from your child’s umbilical cord blood or your own from a recent procedure — it’s really up to you. If you have the financial resources to do it, then it seems the only harm that could come from paying for stem cell storage would be not getting a return on your investment.