The New Skinny on Fat Stem Cells

Posted on June 29, 2018


Biologists at American University in Washington, D.C., have discovered a new type of cell state that gives the body the ability to generate healthy fat cells.

Healthy fat may sound like an oxymoron, but the ability to store fat in the right locations on the body translates to good metabolic health and low levels of inflammation in the body.

To store fat in the right areas means that the body must create new fat cells whenever needed during periods of energy surplus.

The AU discovery is just one more in the study of cell biology that shows the complexity of cells and their makeup.

The study also involves stem cells. Stem cells are dynamic cells with the ability to regenerate without limit. They also have the unique ability to turn into different types of cells.

Stem cells must be coaxed or directed into developing into a particular type of cell. In the body, this direction is given through proteins called growth factors that prompt the body to create the kind of cell needed as a regular part of cell generation or when the body is fighting off illness or repairing an injury.

“Growth factors are chemical messages that tell the body what to do when we are sick or injured. They say, ‘send more oxygen’ or ‘make more skin cells’ to fix a cut or burn,” said Dr. Joel Singer, a New York stem cell physician.

These directions can also be given in a laboratory setting. During the AU project, the researchers gave stem cells instructions to develop into fat stem cells and noticed that some of the stem cells did not do as they were instructed.

Instead, the researchers found that although the stem cells were in a dormant state and not fully differentiated into fat cells, their gene expression was comparable to the gene expression of fat cells.

The researchers also found that although the cells appeared to be sleeping, they could awaken and become active stem cells. The awakened stem cells could also develop into bone, connective tissue and fat without issue, just like the cells that differentiated without going into a dormant state.

The results of the study show that although stem cells have the same fundamental properties of differentiation and regeneration, they may act conservatively until needed.

Why does this matter?

A prevailing theory regarding fat storage states that there is a limit to how many healthy fat cells the body can make, and when the body can no longer store fat cells in the adipose tissue, fat ends up being stored in other body areas, which can cause the development of cancer, heart disease and other serious illnesses.

The AU researchers theorize that the stem cells stay in the dormant but ready-to-go state until needed to differentiate to prevent flooding the body with fat.

The scientists hope to test their theory in mouse models. They also hope to use gene sequencing to determine if genes play a role in how the stem cells behave in hopes of understanding how the cells decide when and if they are going to develop into fat cells.

Understanding the behavior of the stem cells may mean new treatments for other conditions.

“If we can identify the inner mechanisms of the hows and whys of what makes stem cells differentiate or not, we may be able to activate them sooner to help treat injuries or diseases,” Singer said.

Singer uses adipose stem cell therapy to treat a range of health conditions including osteoarthritis and joint injuries, autoimmune disease and neurological conditions.



American University. “Researchers discover new type of stem cell state.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 June 2018.