A woman who had a $20,000 stem-cell "enhanced" facelift at a posh Beverley Hills clinic experienced a bony clicking sound and excruciating pain every time she opened or shut her right eye. The bony clicking sounds turned out to be bones.
About three months earlier the woman had opted for a relatively new kind of cosmetic procedure at a different clinic in Beverly Hills—a face-lift that made use of her own adult stem cells. First, cosmetic surgeons had removed some the woman's abdominal fat with liposuction and isolated the adult stem cells within—a family of cells that can make many copies of themselves in an immature state and can develop into several different kinds of mature tissue. In this case the doctors extracted mesenchymal stem cells—which can turn into bone, cartilage or fat, among other tissues—and injected those cells back into her face, especially around her eyes. The procedure cost her more than $20,000, Wu recollects. Such face-lifts supposedly rejuvenate the skin because stem cells turn into brand-new tissue and release chemicals that help heal aging cells and stimulate nearby cells to proliferate.
During the face-lift her clinicians had also injected some dermal filler, which plastic surgeons have safely used for more than 20 years to reduce the appearance of wrinkles. The principal component of such fillers is calcium hydroxylapatite, a mineral with which cell biologists encourage mesenchymal stem cells to turn into bone—a fact that escaped the woman's clinicians. Wu thinks this unanticipated interaction explains her predicament. He successfully removed the pieces of bone from her eyelid in 2009 and says she is doing well today, but some living stem cells may linger in her face. These cells could turn into bone or other out-of-place tissues once again.