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Is Your Waistline a Stem Cell Warehouse?

If you've ever so much as considered liposuction, it's probably because you want to look more buff. (That is, unless you're Miami avant-garde performance artist Orestes De La Paz, who made some of his adipose tissue into soap.)


Now there may be an additional reason to have excess fat surgically suctioned from your body: The unsightly stuff turns out to be a rich source of stem cells. Someday doctors might be able to use the cells to repair your heart, cure diabetes, possibly thwart the ravages of Alzheimer's disease and possibly even enable you to grow new teeth. At the University of Pennsylvania, bioengineer say they are a step closer to being able to grow new cartilage from a patient's own stem cells.

Recently, researchers from UCLA's Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology announced that they have been able to isolate from body fat primitive, stress-resistant human pluripotent stem cells, which are capable of differentiating into replacements for virtually any sort of cell in the human body, from muscle and bone to cardiac, neuronal and liver cells. UCLA researcher Gregorio Chazenbalk, the lead author of a study published in the June 5 edition of the online science journal PLOS ONE, proclaimed that such cells "could prove a revolutionary treatment option for numerous diseases, including heart disease, stroke and for tissue damage and neural regeneration."

While such treatments are still on the horizon, a growing number of Americans are preparing for them. They're having their fat surgically extracted and then stored for possible future use in stem cell banks that are opening around the world. Kevin Joseph, a southern California man, told NBC 4 in Los Angeles recently that he's undergoing liposuction primarily to amass a tissue sample that can be used to produce stem cells. "I exercise, I eat right," he explains. "I never considered liposuction."

Dr. John Joseph of the Clinical Testing Center of Beverly Hills told the TV station that patients don't need to undergo extensive liposuction to obtain the amount of fat needed to bank stem cells. In an hour-long procedure performed under general anesthesia, doctors remove about 22 cubic centimeters' worth - less that what it takes to fill a shot glass, he said.

Embryonic stem cells, SEM
Science Photo Library

"You extract the cells, then Fed Ex them overnight to the company. They then process it. Then they can freeze them 20, 30 years - probably indefinitely," Joseph said.

One caveat: As a 2012 Scientific American article warns, be wary of untested stem cell treatments and products that claim to use them to cure wrinkles and moisturize the skin.


Photo (right): Courtesy of Dr. Ole Isacson, McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School

Photo (left): Steve Gschmeissner/Science Photo Library/Corbis


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