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A brave new world: Stem cell therapy in Lebanon.

Summary: Fat removal and a non-surgical facelift at the same time might sound like a two-for-one offer too good to be true.

BEIRUT: Fat removal and a non-surgical facelift at the same time might sound like a two-for-one offer too good to be true. But that is a pretty common combination at the Innovi Stem Cell Therapy Clinic, where doctors extract stem cells from the body's fat to do any number of cosmetic cleanups, from scar removal to diminishing fine lines and wrinkles.

The clinic opened five months ago in the Beirut neighborhood of Sodeco, bringing Lebanon its first specialized center in stem cell research.

Around the world at any given medical conference, from fields as diverse as orthopedics to dentistry, stem cells have become one of the main events, as researchers believe these undifferentiated cells hold the cure to some of the gravest human diseases: cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, to name a few.

In a country like Lebanon, stem cell specialists figured the best way to support their research was to offer one of the most in-demand medical procedures: cosmetic surgery.

Walking through the halls of the elegant, albeit quaint, clinic, one will see top-of-the-line fat freezing technology, equipment for laser hair removal and facilities where doctors carry out medical face peels and stretch mark treatment.

They also offer Ozone therapy, which uses pure oxygen that can supposedly alleviate a range of maladies from skin disorders and premature aging to chronic pain.

"But we are not a beauty clinic," said one of the doctors, who asked not to be identified due to Lebanon's strict medical advertising laws.

These cosmetic procedures complement their work in stem cells, a far less understood and rapidly evolving area of medicine. Innovi, for example, has built the Middle East's only stem cell bank, where up to 19,000 vials can be frozen and preserved with liquid nitrogen. The closet housing the bank, which looks like an enormous washing machine, now holds the stem cells of a modest 10 clients.

The clinic has become a hub for various stem cells research. Doctors have visited from Europe and a Syrian doctor is now working with a couple to try and grow sperm from the stem cells of a man with aspermia.

But cosmetic treatments and stem cells go well together as doctors have been using fat-derived cells, also called adipose stem cells, as a Botox-like filler for almost a decade.

Dr. Nada Aleddine, a researcher at Universite Saint-Joseph, is a specialist in stem cell research. While the use of stem cells in most medical fields is still in its research and trial phases, cosmetic applications have been proven effective, she said.

In cosmetic applications, Aleddine said stem cells reduce imperfections in the skin like burns, stretch marks, scars and wrinkles. Adipose stem cells can also help rebuild collagen in the joints, which can alleviate the pain of diseases like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Because adipose stem cells are taken from adult fat tissue, there are far fewer ethical complications with them than using cells from a human embryo. But the promotion of stem cells for things like cosmetic treatment is not without controversy. Around the world, there are well-known doctors whose methods of extracting stem cells are dubious at best, Aleddine said.

Any stem cell therapy requires technology where the cells can be counted, or multiplied in the case that there are too few.

Many of the first "stem cell facelifts," as they are sometimes called, injected material from the fat tissue into the skin without the doctor knowing if there were any stem cells in the fat at all. Innovi, however, has the technology to determine a stem cell count.

Stem cells in the body degenerate and decrease with age, Dr. Najib Saliba, a plastic surgeon at Innovi, explained. For example, Innovi has treated a 21-year-old woman with 500 million stem cells in a single 150 mL vial. That compares to another 60-years-old patient whose cell count was too low to go through with her planned procedure.

It's also because of this degeneration with age that a movement is growing of people having their stem cells extracted and frozen for use during illness or old age. Innovi's bank allows patients to store their cells for up to 20 years or longer if desired, the doctors explained.

But cosmetic stem cell therapy has been a hard sell here. Lebanese are for the most part well acquainted with the instant gratification of traditional plastic surgery and Botox filler techniques, whereas stem cell therapy requires time for the grafted cells to grow and rejuvenate the skin. There is also the price tag, which starts at $1,000 for any stem cell therapy.

On Wednesday morning, one of Innovi's celebrity clients slipped out before the tour of the clinic began. She had just finished telling her doctors that it took several weeks for people to notice that she had work done. As is the nature of vanity, most patients are not willing to wait to look younger, although the result is objectively more natural.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:May 22, 2014
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