Surgeons in Germany say they used stem cells from a 7-year-old girl’s fat to help repair severe damage to her skull. It’s apparently the first time that researchers have generated bone in a person by using the fat-derived cells.
One expert called the work a landmark and said he considered it the first indication that any kind of stem cell had been harnessed to regenerate bone in a human.
He and others cautioned, however, that the report falls short of proving that the stem cells produced the new bone.
The new work is an example of using so-called “adult” stem cells, as opposed to the more controversial “embryonic” stem cells that are recovered from early embryos. Adult stem cells are found in bone marrow and elsewhere in the body, and scientists hope to use their transforming ability to create replacement tissues for treating disease.
Some scientists say stem cells from fat might be particularly useful because they are abundant and readily accessible.
The girl in the new report had been injured in a fall two years before the surgery. She was missing several areas of skull totaling nearly 19 square inches, the German researchers reported.
Other surgeons had failed to correct the defects, and the girl wore a protective helmet. Her brain could sometimes be seen pulsating through the missing areas of her skull.
But several weeks after the stem-cell surgery, she was able to leave her helmet behind, the researchers report in the December issue of the Journal of Cranio-Maxillofacial Surgery. The skull is now smooth to the touch, the missing parts replaced by thin but solid bone, said Dr. Hans-Peter Howaldt of the Justus-Liebig-University Medical School in Giessen, Germany. The child was not identified.
Howaldt, who performed the surgery last year, said the damage was too extensive to be repaired with bone grafts from her body. He said the hope was that if bits of the child’s bone were mixed with stem cells, the cells would turn into bone-building cells that would create additional bone.
That appears to have happened, Howaldt said in a telephone interview Thursday.
“I cannot prove that our success comes from the stem cells alone,” he said, “but the combination of the two things simply worked.”
In August, other German doctors reported growing a jaw bone in a man’s back muscle and transplanting it to his mouth to replace the bone lost to cancer surgery. The researchers used bone marrow to help grow the bone. But it’s not clear whether stem cells in the marrow were responsible for the bone growth.