The Sunday Times
Knightsbridge, London. One of the capital’s wealthiest districts. In these parts, almost anything is for sale — though not much comes cheap. Harrods is the local corner shop and if the streets aren’t quite paved with gold, they have a copious sprinkling of bling. And with bling comes beauty, and plenty of outlets offering all the cosmetic treatments that, for many, have become an essential part of city life.
In a small, brightly lit clinic on the Brompton Road, Lizzie lies face down, breathing deeply to control her nerves. She is having liposuction on her bottom and thighs. I’m no expert, but her bottom and thighs seem fine: not particularly fat, or overlarge, or dimpled with cellulite.
They are smeared in iodine, the vulnerable, trembling orange flesh exposed through surgical robes, bleeding gently from two tiny incisions. Her Louis Vuitton handbag is perched on a nearby trolley, and Barry Manilow’s fake-tanners’ anthem Copacabana plays on the radio. One of the nurses grooves along.
“It doesn’t really hurt,” says Lizzie, in a small voice. “It’s more the shock of it. I was most scared of having the drip put in my hand.” The surgeon, Dr Dennis Wolf, inserts local anaesthetic through the incisions in her flanks using a foot-long rod. Wolf is one of the few doctors in Britain qualified to use this particular liposuction technique. A tall, softly spoken South African, he is doing his best to reassure Lizzie, who is so nervous that she fainted before the procedure began. She will remain conscious throughout.
“You see how the skin turns pale,” he says. “That’s the adrenaline in the anaesthetic. If you did this without adrenaline, you’d bleed like a pig.” Lizzie is not her real name; she doesn’t want her friends to know she’s having lipo. She is a biology student from the Midlands, with long brown hair and a pretty, freckled face. She has splashed out £8,000 on this procedure, a large chunk of her savings.
She decided to have it done because “I’ve always been curvy,” she says, her finger hooked anxiously in her mouth, rocking on the table as Wolf works the probe under her skin, “and I’ve got small breasts, so I wanted to be more in proportion. I’m young, I want to be able to wear what I like, and don’t feel I can at the moment.”
The process is not simply an exercise in vanity. It will certainly help Lizzie become slimmer, but it could have a much more profound effect on her in later life. Some of the fat will be stored and frozen. The stem cells within it may one day save her life.
There is an acceptance among scientists that stem cells have huge potential for medical use.
Lizzie is one of the first patients in Britain to undergo cosmetic surgery involving the removal of stem cells for medical use in the future.
These cells will be frozen in a cryogenic unit and may have the potential to combat a range of life-threatening diseases. At present she is healthy, but who knows what will become of her in 40 or 50 years’ time?
Her doctors believe that the fat from her derrière might at least amount to an effective insurance policy.
As she lies on the bed, the fat is oozing rhythmically out of Lizzie now, making revolting slurping sounds. It travels along a tube, collecting in a clear plastic bag.
It is the colour of blood oranges, or baked beans. Using a syringe, Wolf extracts 50ml of the fat and siphons it off into a smaller plastic wallet, which he hands to Dr Husein Salem, a small, enthusiastic 32-year-old who is pioneering the fat-freezing process in Britain.
“Hopefully there will be anything from a million to 10m viable stem cells in here,” says Salem. He wraps it in a sac filled with protective coolant, then places it in a white cardboard box. It is ready to go to the lab.
There is a general acceptance among scientists that stem cells have huge potential for medical use. Clinical trials have used stem cells to restore bones, cartilage, muscles, nerves, skin and other vital organ tissues. But stem-cell research is a highly controversial area — one of the reasons why medical authorities in Britain have been cautious in embracing projects such as the one in which Lizzie is involved.
The Private Clinic, where Lizzie is having her treatment, is the first private cosmetic-surgery company to offer its patients the option of freezing their fat cells after liposuction, in case they come in handy later on.