Sometimes the most amazing scientific discoveries happen by accident; a loaf of moldy bread or a game of connect the dots with a public water pump becomes a clue to a breakthrough. Researchers at UCLA announced a similar happy accident this week: the discovery of human stem cells in adipose tissue, aka fat, taken from liposuction procedures.
This is actually nothing new; researchers have noted the presence of adipose stem cells since 2001, and they’ve been used in a variety of procedures in both human and veterinary research. These cells, though, are particularly special. Known as Multilineage-differentiating Stress-Enduring cells (MUSE cells), they’re pluripotent, which means that can potentially develop all the various cell types found in the human body, unlike multipotent stem cells, which are only capable of differentiating into several different types of adult cells. Adults produce several kinds of multipotent stem cells, but the presence of pluripotent stem cells is significant.
Why? Historically, the only known source of these kinds of cells was human embryos, and the controversy over embryonic stem cells made it difficult to isolate them and use them in research as well as medical treatment. When Japanese researchers first found MUSE cells in small numbers in skin and bone tissue, it was an important discovery, and so is the UCLA finding of the cells in fat. These cells thrive under stress — that’s actually how they were discovered, because something went wrong with an experiment and when researcher Gregorio Chazenbalk thought all his cells would have died off, he found MUSE cells instead.
As with all exciting scientific discoveries, there’s a lot more work to do before we leap to any conclusions about the significance of the findings and what they mean for the biomedical sciences, but they’re a step in a potentially very promising direction. If the finding turns out to be valid and replicable, it opens the way to a variety of stem cell treatments using pluripotent stem cells from a freely available source — given the large numbers of patients undergoing liposuction every year and the relative ease of cell isolation documented in the paper, the sky is potentially the limit when it comes to extracting these cells and then stimulating them to produce the desired tissue type.
Medical advances have allowed for the production of a wide variety of artificial and partially artificial tissue grafts for patients with conditions like severe burns and muscle damage. The cultivation of pluripotent stem cells could allow us to grow even more tissue types, and potentially to start developing more complex structures in the lab, like whole organs. Maybe someday, a patient with severe organ damage could donate her own fat to grow a new organ, undergoing a brief and relatively low-risk procedure to produce an organ she won’t reject because her body will recognize the cells.
Meanwhile, having access to new lines of pluripotent stem cells will allow scientists to conduct even more important research to help them understand cancer and other diseases. Ethical battles over the use of embryonic stem cells have slowed many key research initiatives and made it difficult for scientists to access the raw material they need, ultimately hindering scientific progress in the U.S. If MUSE cells turn out to be all they appear to be, it could be a huge victory for science, medicine and humanity.
All because a machine failed in the lab one night and a researcher’s cells were left stranded without oxygen and nutrients!
Photo credit: Mike.