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Researchers find new source for stem cells

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Fat left over from cosmetic surgery may provide a new source of stem cells, which could then be coaxed into becoming bone, cartilage or skeletel cells, researchers announced Monday. Stem cells currently are taken from aborted fetuses or embryos left over after fertility treatments.

In a study published in the April issue of the journal Tissue Engineering, University of California at Los Angeles researchers separated stem cells from fat removed from patients undergoing liposuction and coaxed the stem cells to turn into four different types of cells.

The use of stem cells taken from embryos has been popular among researchers because they can turn into any type of cell. But the practice has been controversial.

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That's why researchers have been trying to do the same thing with adult stem cells. Similar success has been reported using stem cells isolated from brain tissue, bone marrow, liver, and skeletal muscle. Monday's study was the first report of success using stem cells from fat removed during liposuction.

Stem cells are precursors to other types of cells. As a stem cell becomes a specific cell, like a fat cell, the genes that would turn it into any other cell are turned off. The stem cells from liposuctioned fat were harvested just before that would have happened. If they had been left alone, they would have turned into fat cells, the researchers said.

Instead, through laboratory techniques, they turned the stem cells that had been destined to turn into fat cells into bone cells, cartilage cells, and skeletal muscle cells.

Dr. Marc Hedrick, one of the UCLA researchers, said such stem cells appear to exist in every tissue and organ in the body.

Within a decade, scientists will master their knowledge of adult stem cells, Hedrick predicted. Once that happens, embryonic stem cells will no longer be needed, he said.

Dr. John McDonald, a stem cell expert from Washington University in St. Louis, said Monday's report should be viewed as a continuation of similar research. "It would be surprising if we could not get stem cells from almost any source that are capable of differentiating to other tissues," he said.

And there is an added benefit because if adult stem cells can be taken from the patient who will be treated, the possibility of rejection is nil, Hedrick said.

The next step is to test the cells in animals to see if they grow and function. If successful, human testing could begin within five years, he added.

However, other researchers who work with adult stem cells cautioned that successfully applying the technique to people will be difficult.

"This finding is just a beginning," said Helen Blau, chairman of the department of molecular pharmacology at Stanford University. "It is not so difficult to get cells to change their fate in a tissue culture dish. It is another thing to get them to do it in the human body and to do it correctly."

"Nobody really has shown this function in human adults" using stem cells from fat, she added.

The process is complicated, Blau said. Scientists will need to show that they can recruit cells derived from adult stem cells to specific points in the body, and then get those cells to function and communicate with other cells in that environment. Scientists also need to be sure the new cells only become the specific cells that are needed -- not other types of cells.

"Most important, you have to prove that they actually hook up and become a part of the tissue that you're trying to fix," Blau explained.

Still, Blau said the liposuction research is exciting because it helps scientists redefine what stem cells are.

"This is evidence that there is a remarkable degree of plasticity in cell fate and that adult cells can change their identity without any intervention," she said.



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RELATED SITES:
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