High blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and other numerous health problems can be the result if there is too much fat in a person’s body. But few would guess that the same fat that that contributes to a long and depressing list of health problems also has life saving potential.
The potential healing power stored within fat is being discussed at a conference in Indianapolis this week. About 150 medical researchers will be in attendance. Investors are dreaming about huge returns as well.
Using stem cells taken from a person’s own body fat, researchers hope to someday develop treatments for poor circulation in legs, heart attacks, and even obesity.
Using stem cells to treat the joints of horses and dogs, other research has focused on animal applications.
“It’s easy to get fat, even from thin people,” said Dr. Keith March, a professor of medicine at Indiana University known for his research on adult stem cells harvested from fat. “It’s a very readily available source. You can work with the cells from a person’s own body.”
During the annual conference of the medical society International Federation of Adipose Therapeutics and Science at the Hyatt Regency, researchers coming from more than a dozen countries, will present their findings today through Saturday.
However, more than just medical professors are being drawn to the IFATS conference in Indy. Conference sponsors include, Cook Medical, device makers Biomet, and drug giant Eli Lilly. All three are among Indiana’s leading health-care companies. Also attending and sponsoring the event are medical start-ups and a number of venture capitalists.
The adult stem cell industry is still small and mostly unprofitable despite having so many therapies in the research stage.
Working on treating heart disease and other conditions using fat derived stem cells is IFATS sponsor Cytori Therapeutics. But the California based company lost $12.7 million on product revenue of just $792,000 in the first half of 2007.
Blockbuster treatments and big payoffs for investors could eventually be the result of the millions being invested by private sources and the government according to experts.
“There’s really no cure for many of the diseases that we are working on,” said Phillip Singerman, managing director of Toucan Capital, a Maryland venture capital firm that sponsors IFATS conferences. “That’s really the promise of stem cells.”
With the potential to develop into specific cell types found in the body such as the heart, nerve tissue, blood, muscle, and other tissues, stem cells are immature cells with great capacity to differentiate. When taking cells from a living patient, the cells are referred to as adult stem cells. This is the type of non-controversial cell that IFATS is focused on.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, stem cells derived from human embryos are referred to as embryonic stem cells. Since a human embryo must be destroyed to harvest the cells, their use is considered controversial.
Fat is a non-controversial and plentiful source of stem cells says March, who is also president of IFATS.
Liposuction is used to extract fat from a patient’s abdomen, buttocks or thigh. About a million support cells can be extracted from only one gram of fat. Many of these support cells are stem cells.
The turn around time for patient treatment is quick with this type of cell according to March.
“They don’t have to be cultured extensively,” he said.
According to the National Institutes for Health, blood cancers, tumors and other conditions have been treated for decades using bone marrow derived adult blood-forming stem cells. But many more potentially life saving treatments could be developed according to experts and investors.
“We have seen opportunities, both in Indiana and nationally, that are making progress and beginning to show a more definite link between their research and eventual therapies,” said Greg Maurer, managing director of Heron Capital, an Indianapolis venture capital firm.
But years can stand in the way for treatments to be fully tested in humans before receiving final approval from the Food and Drug Administration. The road from animal models to humans is a tricky path.
But humans are already involved as subjects for some of the research that is being presented at the IFATS conference.
A treatment for heart attack victims who are injected with stem cells shortly after an attack is being tested by a research team from Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands.
In the Dutch study, stem cells are extracted from fat that has been removed via liposuction. The cells are then injected into the heart muscle within 24 hours of the heart attack.
March said that since the cells secrete proteins and nutrients that preserve the existing heart muscle cells, the adult stem cells may be able to limit the damage to the patient’s heart muscle. New heart muscle cells could also be created by the stem cells added March.
Treating dogs for osteoarthritis is another research project that is being presented at IFATS. The California-based Vet-Stem, a company backed by Toucan Capital also uses stem cells to treat orthopedic injuries in horses.
In order to keep up with the latest research, it is important for Toucan to attend conferences such as IFATS said Singerman of Toucan Capital. 14 stem-cell-related companies have already been funded by Toucan which is a $120 million venture capital fund.
“The science is really at the cutting edge,” he said. “Every day there are new discoveries and new technologies.”