Human fat cells can be 'reprogrammed' to produce cells capable of growing into bone, cartilage, fat and nerve cells, say researchers at Duke University Medical Centre, North Carolina, in the US. The versatile cells appear to be true adult stem cells - 'master' cells that can grow into a variety of different tissues - rather than a mixture of cells with limited potential. The cells, obtained from liposuction procedures, could be a readily available source for creating new cells and tissues to treat disease, according to the researchers, who presented their findings at the annual meeting of the Orthopaedic Research Society.
Over the past three years, Duke researchers have been exposing human fat cells to different nutrients and vitamins, to try and reprogramme them into other sorts of cell. 'Our findings indicate that 62 per cent of human fat cells could be reprogrammed to turn into at least two other different cell types', said team member Kristen Lott, who presented the results. 'We're still a long way from using these cells as therapies in humans', she stressed, adding 'we're excited about the progress we've made so far'. Only ten per cent failed to grow into either fat, bone, cartilage or nerve cells.
Team leader Farshid Guilak hopes that the findings will lead to new treatments for people with cartilage damage due to injury and, further down the line, new therapies for osteoarthritis. 'We envision being able to remove a little bit of fat, and then grow customised, three dimensional pieces of cartilage that would then be surgically implanted in the joint', he said. He added that another advantage of the approach was that since the cells would be from the same patients, 'there are no worries of adverse immune responses or disease transmission'.
Scientists are hoping to use stem cells from a variety of sources to develop new therapies for a range of diseases. They include stem cells isolated from early embryos, which are capable of growing into any type of tissue, stem cells from adult tissues that produce a limited range of specialised cells (for example, bone marrow), and 'reprogrammed' adult cells that can be persuaded into producing a variety of other cell types. There is some evidence that both fat and bone marrow stem cells can be reprogrammed in this way, although it is not yet clear how this happens. Another team at Duke University recently presented evidence that blood stem cells can grow into heart cells, which could help treat damaged heart muscle.