If you've been hunting for useful stem cells, look no further than your butt. Work done at Stanford University's School of Medicine in California, and recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy for Sciences, revealed that fatty cells sucked out during liposuction could be coaxed into becoming stems cells. These induced Pluripotent Stem cells (iPS) found in fat could be useful in new treatments for diseases and therapies for injuries. Typical iPS cells have to be processed from skin cells over a period of weeks. The new fat iPS cells could be ready much faster and more efficienctly. The world of stem cell research is about to be invaded by fab flab from the lab.
With fatty tissue being a plentiful resource, the availability of stem cells is likely to increase. Of course, more stem cells doesn't guarantee more stem cell treatments, but it will hopefully make those treatments easier to perform once they are ready. We've seen how stem cell therapies have the potential to cure blindness, heart disease, spinal injuries, kidney disease, diabetes, and many other illnesses. There's a certain poetic justice in iPS cells from fatty tissue, since many of these conditions arrive from or cause obesity in the first place.
Making useful human stem cells isn't an easy process, and typically involves utilizing mouse stem cells (called feeder cells) to coax the human ones into becoming pluripotent. Development of iPS cells from fat cells can avoid the use of these feeder cells, making the process quicker, easier, and more efficient. Those fat cells are also easy to culture, and can be harvested in large quantities without damaging a patient. Even people of average to light builds should be able to provide enough fatty tissue to develop millions of useful pluripotent stem cells.
Before fat can become the new source for iPS cells, they need to be run through a gamut of tests. Scientists must determine the exact potency of fat iPS, though it is fairly well agreed that they can become skin, bone, muscle, etc. They also have to be screened to see how likely they are to develop into cancer. If fat cells can pass the tests, there's a good chance they'll see wide adoption in future experiments.
While embryonic stem cells (ESC) are clearly the most potent of the bunch, iPS cells carry little of the controversy and many of the same properties. It will be interesting to see if research groups continue to invest in iPS cells now that ESCs are easily accessible again in the US. As stem cells treatments continue their slow transition from the lab to the clinic, we may see plastic surgery tagging along for the ride. Liposuction procedures and diabetes cures in the same facility? That would be an apt and popular combination.