The Latest on Fat Transfer to the Breast
For as long as I have been a Plastic Surgeon I have been jokingly hearing the question, “Hey doc, can’t you just take some of the fat from here and put it there”? Until recently, the answer had always been “No”. However, as we are understanding more and more about the biology of fat we are now able to say “yes” to this frequent inquiry and are able to get good results. I say “good” and not “great” because fat transfer does have limitations.
My Street Credit
In addition to being a board certified plastic surgeon and performing fat injections myself , through attending several meetings I have had the chance to learn the latest in fat grafting science and techniques from the world experts. I have heard Dr. Sidney Coleman, of Manhatten, lecture extensively on fat grafting to the face, hands, breast, and body. Dr. Daniel Del Vecchio of Boston, and Dr. Roger Khouri of Miami, the masters of large volume fat grafting to the breast, also imparted their vast knowledge and experience on fat only breast augmentation. This blog is as credible and as current of information as you will find on the topic.
The Teachings of the Master of Fat Transfer to the Breast
Dr. Roger Khouri of Miami has the world’s most experience with breast augmentation with fat. To date he has performed over 1000 fat grafting procedures to the breast and has published several articles on his techniques and outcomes. He discovered that the key to getting large volumes of fat to survive is dependant on the actual size of the particles of fat that are being transferred, the way the fat is distributed in the recipient site(breast), and the ability of the donor site to accept tissue.
Firstly, the fat droplets that are collected have to be very small, < 2 mm in diameter, for the fat to survive. Next, when these fat droplets are introduced they need to be surrounded on all sides by healthy bleeding tissue. This ensures that these small fat particles will receive oxygen and nutrients from the adjacent tissue before becoming incorporated. Lastly, the recipient site, or breast in Khouri’s cases, has to be loose enough structurally to accept the fat. In a nutshell, if too much fat is crammed into too small a space then it will die from too much pressure.
First, the fat is harvested via liposuction. This fat is usually taken from the thigh or lower abdomen. It is then separated into its 3 components of water, oil, and fat cells. It is the fat cells that we want. The next step is the tricky part. The breast has to be able to accommodate the fat. In many women their tight breast tissue and skin limits fat placement. In these cases, the breast tissue has to be expanded before surgery. This is accomplished with the BRAVA device. This device looks like something from a 70’s sci-fi film or an Austin Powers movie(One swedish made…), but it is real, and it works. The BRAVA device is essentially a pair of breast suction cups that suck on the breast and stretch the skin. This creates space for the grafted fat and as an added bonus also improves the breast blood supply. This is worn intensely for 10 hours a day, every day, for 2 weeks prior to surgery and for one week after grafting.(see below)
1) Size – We are limited to grafting 250-300 cc(or ml) of fat. This can move an A cup to a B cup, or a B cup to a C cup, but will ot jump an A to a C. Therefore, results are still significant, but modest. Fat grafting will not achieve what an implant can.
2) Shape – Again, we are limited. Fat grafting adds volume and can do some shaping. However, fat grafts are still subject to gravity and will not yield projection, or how far the breast sticks out from the chest. Projection is still best achieved with implants.
3) BRAVA – Often the BRAVA device is necessary for pre-expansion prior to fat injection. A patient has to be absolutely committed to wearing the device if surgery is to be successful. Again, the device has to be worn every day,10 hours a day, for 2 weeks prior to surgery. Then, the device is worn as much as possible, preferably continuously, for an additional week after surgery.
4) Cost – The BRAVA system alone costs $2500. Then you add surgeons cost which is basically the cost of a breast augmentation + the cost of liposuction. Then you add in anesthesia and hospital fees. Lastly, you may need more than one injection procedure to get your desired results. This additional procedure will also have a cost. Overall, a breast augmentation is a cheaper option which accomplishes more.
5) Safety – Concern has been raised over the possibility of fat injection interfering with breast cancer screening. Fat graft death can result in oil cysts and calcium deposits in the breast. These findings can potentially affect mammogram interpretation. More concerning is that there has been research showing that when fat stem cells, which are abundant in transferred fat, are transplanted into mice containing breast cancer cells, that the cells become more aggressive and more likely to metastasize.
Overall, I think fat grafting is a good procedure that is here to stay. Although it cannot accomplish all the things a breast implant can, it can yield “good” results with a modest and all-natural breast augmentation. That being said, at this time I am holding off on offering fat grafting for breast augmentation. The animal studies are concerning for what these stem cell rich fat cells might do to any preexisting breast cancer cells. As breast cancer occurs in 12% of the population, I am not willing to take the risk of worsening an undiagnosed breast cancer.