Groundbreaking stem cell research could treat deadly diseases

Published: September 14, 2017
John D. Murray, M.D.

Functional fat cells may play a role in regenerative medicine.

What if liposuction could undo the damage caused by degenerative conditions? What sounds too good to be true may be a new breakthrough in medicine, thanks to research taking place on the UF Health Jacksonville campus.

Adipose tissue, or fat, contains 500 to 1,000 times more stem cells than other commonly known sources, such as cord blood or bone marrow. John Murray, MD, a UF Health plastic surgeon and an assistant professor of surgery at the University of Florida College of Medicine – Jacksonville, is conducting research on adipose-derived stem cells using fat tissue donated by liposuction patients.

“Stem cells can solve challenging clinical problems that currently have no solutions, including cardiac disease, cancer and arthritis,” Murray said. “In a nutshell, we’re trying to learn more about these stem cells that have both regenerative and therapeutic potential.”

The Food and Drug Administration regulates stem cells like pharmaceutical drugs, meaning they must meet strict clinical standards of quality. To verify their quality, the FDA must know more about them. Adipose-derived stem cells have only been widely studied since 2001, while other types of stem cells have been under the microscope decades longer.

“We’re currently in the midst of our characterization study, which will fully differentiate these cells based on our knowledge of what stem cells are from a molecular perspective,” Murray said.

They will catalog traits such as what the cells can grow into and how they signal other cells around them. Then comes the next phase: creating a handheld point-of-care device that can isolate, analyze and validate the quality of stem cells within an hour.

“The idea is we have a small device that uses Bluetooth to route those results back to your cell phone,” Murray said. “Then the FDA has a record of the cells used, and the validation is recorded.”

The device will provide an alternative to expensive medical equipment available in limited locations around the country. It is inexpensive to produce and can be rapidly updated as more is learned about stem cells. The design is lightweight and uses little battery power, making it accessible to developing countries as well.

This device will also make stem cell treatments more efficient. Murray’s ideal procedure would involve the patient coming in for surgery and donating adipose from their own body. The surgeon would then isolate, analyze and validate the quality of the cells before using them in an injectable form to treat the patient’s condition, all in one day.

This turnaround time is significant because with so many more stem cells available in fat, treatments could take place immediately after collecting the cells.

“You can harvest them in clinically useful quantities for immediate therapeutic use versus cells that you might receive from bone marrow,” Murray explained.

Other types of stem cells must be cultured in a laboratory to grow enough for clinical use. This can take weeks, and the new cells are not as predictable in their effectiveness. Though the study is ongoing, Murray says the encouragement from colleagues and staff has already made a difference to him.

“The amount of personal support at UF Health Jacksonville has been phenomenal and has been much appreciated,” Murray said.

John D. Murray, M.D.

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