Tech elites are paying huge amounts to freeze stem cells from liposuctioned fat as a 'back up' for a longer life
- A startup called Forever Labs freezes and stores people's stem cells as a kind of back-up drive for their future selves.
- The company is now offering a way to bank stem cells from fat stores instead of bone marrow.
- Stem cells have a range of potential therapeutic uses in conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, since they can turn into any kind of cell.
- But for now, stem cells are used only for very limited purposes, like treating cancer.
Your next effort to prolong your life could involve an awkward conversation with your plastic surgeon. Don't throw away the fat you've just removed from my liposuction procedure, you might ask them. Instead, save the excess material because it's rich in stem cells.
Beginning this week, longevity startup Forever Labs will offer its customers the ability to bank the stem cells in their fat stores — the same material that's removed and destroyed after liposuction. Those stem cells are seen as a key component of health. Some believe they may also hold the keys to a longer, better life.
Founded in 2015, Forever Labs collaborates with a network of specialised doctors to siphon stem cells from customers' bone marrow. The company is now also partnering with some plastic surgeons to allow people who are already undergoing liposuction to bank the stem cells from the fat that would otherwise be discarded.
“If you’re going to throw them in the garbage, you might as well bank them,” Mark Katakowski, Forever Labs' co-founder and CEO, told Business Insider.
Forever Labs then freezes the stem cells, delivers them to one of its cell-banking facilities, and maintains them under careful conditions. The hope is that one day, more advanced science will allow patients to have their own young cells injected back into their bodies. According to this line of thinking, these cells could then do everything from fight ageing to help treat diseases like diabetes.
"This is like a back-up," Katakowski said.
Forever Labs charges $2,750 per year or a one-time payment of $7,000 (the equivalent of about R104,000) to harvest a customer's stem cells from the bone marrow extracted by an orthopaedic surgeon. (The surgery is included in that cost.) The new method using fat is $1,000 cheaper for those paying annually, but the one-time payment costs the same.
What a bank of your stem cells might be used for
A medical physicist and former research scientist for the Henry Ford Health System in Michigan, Katakowski was spurred to bank his own stem cells in 2015 after studying their therapeutic potential in mice.
Stem cells are unique because they can develop into many different cell types, from those that make up muscle tissue to those that form the neurons in our brain. For that reason, scientists have long hoped that stem cells could be used to regenerate failing tissues or organs as an alternative to transplants, which are expensive, time-consuming, and come with a risk of rejection. Instead of getting a transplanted kidney from a donor, for example, a patient could one day hope to receive a sample of his or her own stem cells, programmed to generate a new kidney.
But stem cells are only widely used today for one procedure: bone marrow transplants. The transplants are typically used by leukaemia patients who undergo the treatment in conjunction with chemotherapy as a means of replacing the healthy stem cells that the chemo has destroyed.
"Right now that’s the only approved use of stem cells," Allison Mayle, a cancer researcher at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, told Business Insider.
In recent years, scientists have been studying how to use stem cells to treat a range of other conditions that involve a specific type of failing cell, such as type 1 diabetes (where the body's immune system destroys the pancreas' insulin-producing beta cells), macular degeneration, and heart disease. So far, however, those trials have only included a very small number of patients; more extensive studies have only been carried out in lab animals.
Ronna Parsa, a Los Angeles-based orthopaedic surgeon, contracts with Forever Labs to do bone marrow stem cell draws. Since she started in March, she's done roughly five procedures, she said. Parsa also banked her own stem cells with Forever Labs.
"After doing the research I can just see the vast potential for these types of therapies in the future," Parsa told Business Insider. "By freezing my 32-year-old stem cells, hopefully when I’m 50 or 60 or 70 I can use those."
Mayle agrees that the therapies could have potential, but she isn't sure they'll come to fruition in time for most patients to see a benefit.
"Would this be something that's going to happen in our lifetime? It's hard to tell," Mayle said. "There certainly are things that could work in the next five to ten years, but they also might not."
'An ace in my pocket'
Nevertheless, stem cell banking is beginning to emerge as a trend. One recent report projected that the global stem cell banking market would grow from $6.3 billion in 2018 to $9.3 billion by 2023. Katakowski wouldn't share how many customers he's had so far, but said most hail from areas with tech meccas, like Silicon Valley and New York City.
In the US, hundreds of providers currently offer stem cell banking. A handful also offer unproven anti-ageing therapies using the cells. One such company, Houston-based Celltex Therapeutics, used to inject patients with retrieved stem cells, and once treated Texas governor Rick Perry. But Celltex stopped offering the service in the US in 2012 after regulators warned them that they lacked federal approval.
Katakowski said Forever Labs is not offering any stem cell therapies, just the ability to store the cells until peer-reviewed science makes proven therapies available.
"In the back of your mind you know you've got it," Katakowski said. "It gives you a little piece of mind. Is it going to be a get-out-of-jail-free card or an ace in my pocket? It might."
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