Controversial Conference

November 30, 2004

Two years after transforming human fat cells into what appeared to be nerve cells, a group led by Duke Medical Center researchers has gone one step further by demonstrating that these new cells also appear to act like nerve cells.

The team reports in the journal Experimental Neurology that the results of its latest experiments provide the most compelling scientific evidence to date that researchers will eventually be able to take cells from a practically limitless source--fat--and retrain them to differentiate along new developmental paths. It is possible, they add, that these cells might then be used to treat a number of human ailments of the central and peripheral nervous systems.

Using a cocktail of growth factors and induction agents, the researchers transformed cells isolated from mouse fat, also known as adipose tissue, into two important nerve cell types: neurons and glial cells. Neurons carry electrical signals from cell to cell, while glial cells surround neurons like a sheath.

"We have demonstrated that within fat tissue there is a population of stromal cells that can differentiate into different types of cells with many of the characteristics of neuronal and glial cells," says Duke's Kristine Safford, first author of the paper. "These findings support more research into developing adipose tissue as a viable source for cellular-based therapies."

"This is a big step to take undifferentiated cells that haven't committed to a particular future and redirect them to develop down a different path," says Duke surgeon Henry Rice, senior member of the research team. "Results such as these challenge the traditional dogma that once cells become a certain type of tissue, they are locked into that destiny. While it appears that we have awakened a new pathway of development, the exact trigger for this change is still not known."

Until recently, it was believed that organisms were born with the full complement of neuronal cells, and that new neurons could not be formed. According to the researchers, their findings, as well as the experiments performed by others on bone-marrow stem cells, open up new possibilities for the treatment of nervous-system disorders or injuries.