Objective: The use of autologous fat as a soft tissue filler has increased over the past decade in both reconstructive and aesthetic surgeries. Enhancement of autologous fat grafts with the addition of the stromal vascular fraction (SVF) has been reported to improve long-term volume retention. Stromal vascular fraction is most commonly isolated using enzymatic digestion, but it is unknown what effect the digestion process has on the adipocytes and SVF cells that comprise the graft. Some clinicians have reported use of enzymatically digested fat grafts to alter the physical properties of the tissue in specialized applications. We have previously reported that increasing collagenase digestion duration adversely affects the viability of adipocytes and SVF cells. Here, we aimed to determine if collagenase digestion of adipocytes before grafting is detrimental to long-term graft retention and if SVF supplementation can abrogate these potential deleterious effects.
Methods and results: We used a published xenograft model in which human lipoaspirate was implanted into the scalp of immunocompromised mice to study the effects of collagenase digestion on in vivo graft survival after 12 weeks. We used 4 experimental groups: grafts composed of collagenase-digested and nondigested adipocytes (50-minute digestion) and grafts with and without SVF supplementation. We used microcomputed tomography to serially and noninvasively quantify graft volume, in conjunction with hematoxylin-eosin staining of histological cross-sections of implanted and excised grafts to assess overall tissue viability. We found that adipocytes that were collagenase-digested before implantation had significantly lower retention rates at 12 weeks and poorer tissue health, which was assessed by quantifying the number of intact adipocytes, the number of cystic formations, and by scoring the degree of inflammation and fibrosis. Further, we found that SVF supplementation of the digested grafts improved graft survival, but not to the level observed in undigested grafts.
Conclusions: We conclude that collagenase digestion adversely affects the long-term volume retention of fat grafts, but that graft retention is improved by SVF supplementation. These experimental results can serve as an initial framework to further elucidate the reported efficacy and safety of using collagenase-digested fat grafts and SVF in the clinical setting.