Cell-assisted lipotransfer and breast reconstruction

After researching cell-assisted lipotransfer, meeting with the appropriate doctors, and talking it over with her family, Suaznne Somers decided in 2008 to move forward with the surgery. Shortly after, through Yoshimura and Cha, she met Joel Aronowitz, MD, a plastic surgeon at the Cedars-Sinai Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Center in Los Angeles and founder of the Breast Preservation Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating women about their surgical options before and after breast cancer treatment. Dr. Aronowitz had gone to Tokyo to observe Yoshimura in action and was hard at work on setting up the University Stem Cell Center in Santa Monica, Calif., a joint project with his colleague James Watson, MD, to provide similar clinical trials in the United States.

Breaking New Ground in the United States With CAL

At the time, there were no such trials already under way in the United States, which meant that Somers would have to either leave the country to get the surgery or push for a new trial stateside. Wanting other women in America to have the same opportunities she had, she chose the latter — and then set about going through all the appropriate hoops and channels to get a trial going in Los Angeles.

Easier said than done. Once it was determined that Aronowitz and his team would perform the procedure at Hollywood Presbyterian, Somers, her surgeons, and the hospital had to begin the long, complicated process of applying for approval from an Institutional Review Board (IRB).

“The purpose of the IRB is to protect the individuals who choose to participate in a scientific study involving medical treatment,” Aronowitz explains. “When you want to do any experiment, but especially an experiment that involves human participants, the experiment design has to be reviewed by an outside independent body — in this case, made up of lay people, scientists who know about the subject, and doctors at the hospital or institution.”

In order to gain approval for the CAL trial, for example, Aronowitz and his team had to submit a written protocol — background about the procedure, the exact materials and methods they would be using, the consent forms they would give participants, and a listing of possible side effects and complications. The board then reviewed the protocol and responded with questions and suggestions, beginning a lengthy process to revise and perfect the design of the experiment.

“The biggest challenges occurred in the years waiting for approval to go forward,” Somers says. “But it was very important to me that this all be done legally and correctly.”

Her patience paid off. Earlier this year, after months of back and forth between the board and the researchers, the first official CAL trial in the United States was approved for launch. Somers was its inaugural enrollee — the first of a planned 100 participants.

Suzanne Somers’ Cell-Assisted Lipotransfer Success Story

Somers’ surgery took place last August, three years after she first decided to have the procedure and more than a decade since she’d lost her right breast to cancer. On the day of, she could barely contain her emotions.

“I had spent so many years working and wishing and waiting for this,” she recalls. “I felt like it was an important day for me, but more than that, a significant day for all American women faced with the challenge of breast cancer.”

Her family was similarly overwhelmed. “I was extremely emotional,” says Alan Hamel, Somers’ husband of more than 30 years. “I always feel uneasy anytime I hear the word ‘surgery’ or anytime anyone goes into the hospital, but I felt confident things would go okay. Still, I had moments when I got very teary, and I couldn’t put my finger on why at the time. Now that I am a few months away from it, I realize the reason was that Suzanne had waited so long for this to happen — and it was finally going forward.”

Adds Somers’ daughter-in-law Caroline, who accompanied her into the operating room: “I couldn’t help but think of my own mother, who had a radical mastectomy in the 1970s. Like many women, my mother came home with a concave breast and was so humiliated, she couldn’t lift her head out of my dad’s shoulder. This procedure is so different from what women have been offered in the past — and yet it looks so simple, so advanced, you can’t believe it’s ever been done any other way.”

Watching the surgery, Caroline adds, was one of the most fascinating experiences of her life. The whole procedure took just a couple of hours from start to finish, and most of that time was spent isolating the stem cells and mixing them with Somers’ fat, which had been taken from her hip and abdomen via liposuction. The actual “reconstruction” part of the procedure was relatively quick — but dramatic. “In less than 10 minutes, I watched this sad little breast puff up like a balloon,” Caroline recalls. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. No cutting, no blood, no implant. Just two or three small entrance holes, and suddenly there were two symmetrical breasts.”

The surgery was a success. Somers had some soreness and bruising where the fat had been taken (a normal part of the recovery, Aronowitz says), but she felt great otherwise — and she looked great, too. “I couldn’t stop showing people,” she says of her new breast. “I had to stop that, but it just amazes me every time I look at it. I came out of the ether to see the most beautiful, soft, unscarred, real breast — all me. No foreign objects, no real down time. It’s like a big present, 11 years later.”


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