Sunday, February 25, 2007

Save That Fat!!

Here's a little quiz for for you: What do racehorses, stem cells and liposuction have in common? If I were guessing, my first stab at an answer would be that they're all out of my price range. My second would be that they all are linked to someone taking a gamble on the future. My third would stretch my brain beyond comfortable tolerances, so I think I'll stick with two. How about you? Are you stumped? Maybe the better question to ask is; What could horses, stem cells and liposuction possibly have in common? They're certainly not intuitively linked. Actually, though, there's more connecting them than you'd think (unless you have a particularly active and well-trained imagination which is leaping ahead to where I'm going with this--in which case I am extremely impressed and somewhat baffled.)

Turns out that all the fat that people are paying doctors to suck out of their bodies has the potential for a second, and rather useful, life. No, I am not talking about a black market trade in human by-product candles and lipstick (and it's really disgusting that you even thought of it.) Human fat, it seems, is a terrific source of adult stem cells. So where do the horses fit in? From Biology News Net:

EuroSTELLS Project Leader Cesare Galli, from the University of Bologna, Italy has high hopes that transplanted fat stem cells will restore injured sports horses to their former glory. "Our aim is to regenerate the tendon structure that does not repair spontaneously," says Galli. Once scar tissue is formed, it hinders the animal’s recovery. "If you intervene, with cell transplants, within one week, you can repair the lesion," Galli notes. Like horses, humans are also vulnerable to joint injuries, and rehabilitations are long and costly. Now experience with horses is paving the way to cell therapies for sport-related tendon injuries in humans.
According to the BNN article, fat is "closely related to bone, cartilage, muscle and other connective tissue." Apparently, the hope is that it won't be that big a leap to get the fat stem cells to change to these other, more desirable tissues, but how do they sort out which cells can make the switch? Philippe Collas is leading a research team at the University of Oslo in Norway, and has, "...identified certain chemical marks that allow him to predict which, among the hundreds of millions of stem cells in liposuctioned fat, are best at regenerating tissue." Some people are so smart.

Okay, they can figure out which cells are useful out of fat soup, and they have potential treatments in the works for injured racehorses, but with hobbled humans in mind for farther down the investigative track. So, now all they need is a steady source of fat. Too bad it's in such short supply, right? Of course not:

"Fat tissue is an underappreciated source of stem cells," Collas pointed out. Unlike other sources of adult stem cells, such as bone marrow, fat is abundant and there is no shortage of donors. "It’s wonderful, we have litres and litres of material from cosmetic surgery clinics and end up with bucketfuls of stem cells to work with," he notes.

Now that we all have the image of bucketfuls of human fat in our heads, isn't it at least a little bit cool to know that they might actually have something useful to do with it? Besides being another step forward in the search to find treatments and cures out of the building blocks that God put into every human on the planet, it opens the door to a whole new way of justifying our personal vanity. Now people who go in to have a little bit of the waste trimmed from their waist can say that they were motivated by a desire to contribute a part of themselves to scientific progress. They will get to look all altruistic and noble, while still leaving their "excess stem cell supply" in that aforementioned bucket. After the surgery, they could mentally justify pigging out at will, and gaining back all the weight, since they would selflessly be growing another scientific contribution. I wonder, if people donate their fat to medical research, do they get to take the surgery off on their taxes? Maybe that would be pushing it, eh?