A Cure For Thigh Anxiety?

Medicine: New pills are said to fix cellulite, but many doctors are skeptical.

April 04, 1999|By Rosie Mestel | Rosie Mestel,los angeles times

The red pills come in a pink box and look big enough to banish cellulite from a horse. The formulation -- including extracts of seaweed, sweet clover, grape seed and gingko biloba -- promises hope to any woman who's ever stared despairingly at her back view in a mirror, in all its wobbly, dimpled glory.

The pill is Cellasene, and its manufacturer claims it can melt away the cellulite that so many women dread. It does so, they say, by improving blood flow to women's thighs and buttocks, allowing trapped blobs of fat to be more easily metabolized by our bodies.

Given the way lots of women feel about this particular cosmetic condition, it's no wonder that the drug's U.S. distributor, Rexall Sundown, expects business to be brisk. (One can almost understand -- not quite -- why an Australian woman, according to news reports, coughed up more than $1,000 for a 10-day supply, in the midst of a Cellasene shortage.)

But can Cellasene -- or a similar product from New Zealand, Cell-U-Thin Plus, that was also just launched in the United States -- really do any good?

Many doctors are skeptical. Cellasene's marketers "are hustling a pill with no value," says Dr. Arthur Frank, medical director of the George Washington University weight management program in Washington.

Cellasene's inventor, Italian businessman Gianfranco Merizzi, says his Milan-based company, Medestea Internazionale, has tested it with scientists at a nearby university.

"This is a serious approach to the problem of cellulite," he says in a telephone interview from Dublin, Ireland, where a Cellasene launch is in full swing.

Years of work went into developing the recipe, he says, starting in 1992, when he was judging a Miss Italy contest.

"There were a lot of young and beautiful girls," he recalls. "When they heard I was president of a cosmetics company, they came to me and said, 'We are young, but we have cellulite in the thighs.'"

Merizzi set out to help them. Concluding that the skin was a barrier to treatment, he turned his attention to a therapy that could be delivered in pill form. What to deliver? Something to fight cellulite's underlying cause, which, according to Merizzi, is "trapped fat." Estrogen, he explains, causes poor blood flow in cellulite areas, so the fat can't be metabolized.

Cellasene's herbs were chosen to improve blood flow, he explains.

But there's a problem with all this, says Dr. Michael Rosenbaum, of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Merizzi's theories, he says, don't mesh with most doctors' thinking about cellulite. Fat, he says, isn't the main issue.

Rosenbaum and colleagues recently put cellulite under the scientist's scalpel -- literally.

"Think of your thigh as a quilt," he says. "Say you had a whole load of quilts and some of them were irregular with bumpy dimples, and some of them were smooth. What's the difference between those quilts? Is it in the stuffing or the stitches?"

Rosenbaum and colleagues found no difference between the stuffing (or fat) of people with and without a cellulite problem. And they found no real difference in blood supply.

The difference, instead, was in the stitches: the elastic fibers of connective tissue that stretch through the fat, anchoring the skin to the muscles beneath. In men, that mesh of fibers was dense, like fishnet. In women, it was patterned more like a honeycomb. Fat in each cell of the comb could more easily bulge outward.

Other doctors agree that connective tissue -- not fat -- causes dimpling, because the skin is tugged inward at points where strands join the skin. Genes, age and gender play their part in the dimpling's severity.

There aren't any miracle cures, says plastic surgeon Peter B. Fodor, of the University of California, Los Angeles. Liposuction procedures, along with some severing of the connective fibers, can improve matters somewhat. So can a massage treatment in which fibers are stretched and fat redistributed.

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