Adult fat cells easily become multi-purpose stem cells: Stanford research

Melissa Healy

Get out your liposuction wands, everybody: that fat you've been carrying on your hips, thighs and belly can be transformed with relative ease into cells that may one day be capable of repairing a wide range of your damaged or diseased tissues, according to a new report by Stanford University researchers.

Stem cells found in fat deposits, it turns out, are more primitive than are many adult stem cells harvested from tissues such as skin and blood: with comparatively less effort than is required to make, for instance, a stem cell derived from skin return to an undifferentiated cell form, fat cells can be reprogrammed to become muscle, neuron and stomach lining cells, finds a new study slated for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"They are more embryonic-like" than stem cells derived from skin, said Ning Sun, who conducted the research at Stanford University's Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine Institute. And reprogramming adipose stem cells to become "pluripotent" is more efficient as well, said Sun: using skin-cell "fibroblasts," researchers had to manipulate about 1,000 cells to yield a single induced pluripotent stem cell; the same process conducted on 1,000 stem cells from fat yielded 20 induced pluripotent stem cells.

The science of reprogramming adult stem cells to behave more like those derived from human embryos remains in its infancy, and researchers point to many uncertainties, including the risk that the use of some reprogrammed stem cells in patients might jump-start the growth of cancers. But the search for ways to make adult stem cells perform the same feats of transformation that embryonic stem cells do has provided an alternative to those cells with fewer ethical drawbacks.

For future patients looking to regenerative medicine to repair hearts, brains and diseases of the soft tissues, the new work suggests that their own fat stores could be plentiful workhorses of medical treatment. And because these stem cells would come from a patient's own body, they are unlikely to be attacked or rejected as foreign intruders by the body's immune system.

And what a plentiful resource it is! "We've identified a great natural resource," said Stanford surgery professor and study co-author Dr. Michael Longaker in a Stanford press release. With roughly two-thirds of the American adult population overweight or obese, the United States could become a potential future exporter of this promising new resource. "Liquid gold," Dr. Longaker has called the globs of fat seen by the side of liposuctionists' operating tables.

But wait. The nation's ballooning weight problem is expected to be a key contributing factor in rising rates of cardiovascular disease, arthritic joints and cancers -- all of which we will look to regenerative medicine to cure. If fat cells end up playing a key role in treating fat-related diseases, that may lend new meaning to the maxim "patient, cure thyself." And it could mean we will need to horde of our fat deposits for domestic consumption.


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