Relying on the cutting-edge study of stem cells, UPenn surgeon Ivona Percec is out to find the real fountain of youth.
If Dr. Ivona Percec’s stem cell research proves successful, it may, in some sense, put the plastic surgeon out of the face-lift business. In addition to her clinical practice, the University of Pennsylvania physician focuses on cutting-edge investigations into the potential use of adult human stem cells to treat and prevent the signs of aging. The aim of this early-stage research, she says, is to find a way to delay aging by intervening in the activity of a particular gene family—and to put that knowledge to use years in the future.
“I study how the face ages from a technical and interventional standpoint,” says Percec, a plastic surgeon at Penn-affiliated hospitals and clinics who’s also the director of Basic Science Research and associate director of Cosmetic Surgery at Penn, as well as an assistant professor of surgery at the university’s School of Medicine.
Human stem cell expression, or gene activity, appears to change gradually with advancing age, starting around age 40, says Percec. Her research aims to find the genetic pathways involved in that stem cell aging and, eventually, translate them into clinical ways to prevent or delay the process. These could include novel approaches to “rejuvenating the human face and body,” she explains.
Through her research, Percec aims to show the role of the sirtuin gene family in the aging of body fat and to find, within stem cells derived from that fat, the regulators that could reverse characteristics of aging. The work involves taking subcutaneous fat from voluntary patients—typically the byproducts of tummy-tucks that otherwise would be discarded—and isolating stem cells to study.
Currently, this research takes place in tissue cultures. The next step would be animal studies. Clinical applications involving the manipulation and reinjection of stem cells into humans are years away, should the science prove successful, the doc- tor says. “I am not aware of other researchers who are combining all the clinical and research variables in this manner. Obviously, there are many scientists studying antiaging in other systems, but they are almost always using animal models, like mice, or manufactured cell lines, which do not always behave like normal human tissue, which is the key distinguishing factor of our work,” she says.
While she and other surgeons already use fat grafting, a form of stem cell enrichment, in certain cosmetic procedures, the US Food and Drug Administration has strict limits on using pure fractions of adult stem cells for cosmetic surgery. “This is another reason why our research, which uses stem cells directly from patients using minimal processing, is so important,” says Percec.