Researchers at Stanford University have transformed ordinary fat cells into embryonic-like stem cells, according to a paper published in the official journal of the United States National Academy of Sciences.
Though the scientists say it's too soon to use excess fat to cure diseases, it could, in theory, allow people to grow personalized replacement parts for ailing organs as many stem cell researchers are seeking to do.
"Imagine if we could isolate fat cells from a patient with some type of congenital cardiac disease," said cardiologist Joseph Wu, senior author of the paper published in Monday's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"We could then differentiate them into cardiac cells, study how they respond to different drugs or stimuli and see how they compare to normal cells. This would be a great advance," he reported, according to the Stanford University Medical Center.
Furthermore, because the "induced pluripotent stem cells" don't come from embryos, their utilization would sidestep the controversy that surrounds embryonic stem cell research, which requires the destruction of human embryos.
"There's an abundance of fat cells in this country," Wu told the San Jose Mercury News.
"And we could transform them into brain, hair, eye cells - or whatever you can think of," he added.
So far, Stanford researchers have proven that fat cells can differentiate into cells from the three main tissue types of the body, including neurons, muscle and lining of the gut.
Though scientists at the University of California in Los Angeles, the University of Melbourne and other institutions have found ways to turn fat cells into other specific cells – such as muscle – no one, until now, was able to transform them into embryonic-like cells.
According to Stanford surgery professor and co-author of the research Michael Longaker, the field now needs to move forward in ways that the Food and Drug Administration would approve – with cells that can be efficiently reprogrammed without the risk of cross-species contamination.
"The idea of reprogramming a cell from your body to become anything your body needs is very exciting," he commented.
In addition to Wu and Longaker, other Stanford collaborators on the research include postdoctoral scholars Ning Sun, Nicholas Panetta, Deepak Gupta, , and Shijun Hu,; graduate student Kitchener Wilson; medical student Andrew Lee; research assistant Fangjun Jia; associate professor of pathology and of pediatrics Athena Cherry; and professor of cardiothoracic surgery Robert Robbins.
The research at Stanford was supported by the Mallinckrodt Foundation, the American Heart Association, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the National Institutes of Health, the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute, the Oak Foundation and the Hagey Laboratory for Pediatric Regenerative Medicine.