Researchers Turn Fat Cells Into Blood Vessels In 'Game-Changing' Procedure

By Amir Khan on July 26, 2012 10:55 AM EDT

Stem Cells
Mouse stem cells (Photo: Creative Commons)

Researchers used stem cells to turn fat cells into blood vessels that they say could one day play a major role in heart bypass surgery, according to new research, presented Wednesday at an American Heart Association meeting in New Orleans.

In bypass surgery, doctors use transplanted blood vessels to reroute blood around arteries. Current techniques are limited, however, and researchers say blood vessels created from stem cells could help overcome some of the limitations. The blood vessels could benefit millions of people, researchers said.

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We are targeting elderly, obese or diabetic patients in need of coronary artery bypass graft surgery," Dr. Matthias Nollert, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma School of Chemical, Biological and Materials Engineering, in Norman, Okla., told HealthDay. "For these patients, the gold standard is a vascular graft, but for many there are no suitable vessels available."

Researchers used liposuction to remove adult stem cells from fat and turned them into smooth muscle cells. Then, the cells were placed onto a thin collagen membrane and put them into tubes the diameter of a blood vessel. In three to four weeks, they were able to create usable blood vessels.

"It is very hard to bypass small vessels in the heart," Dr. Roberto Bolli, an American Heart Association spokesman and chief of cardiology at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, told HealthDay. "If these cells prove useful, it will be very easy to collect through liposuction."

While the findings are exciting, researchers stressed that any benefits are still a ways away.

"We are still five to 10 years away from seeing this being tested in people," Nollert told HealthDay. "First, we will need to make a fully functional vessel. Ours works, but does not yet achieve physiological mechanical properties.[Then] we will need to show that stem cells obtained from old, sick people can also be used to make a functional vessel and that this works in an animal model."

Even so, Dr. Stephen Green, chief of cardiology at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y. told HealthDay the procedure is exciting.

"It's a big deal and a potentially game-changing thing," he said.

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