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Creating Implants from Stem Cells

While many of us are trying to lose fat this summer, researchers in the College of Dental Medicine will be trying to devise ways to add fat back to our bodies.
   With a new $2.5 million grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, Jeremy Mao, D.D.S., Ph.D., associate professor of dental medicine, will try to construct soft adipose tissue implants out of a patient’s own stem cells.
   Cancer surgery, chronic diseases, trauma and congenital anomalies can all cause disfigurements that lead to physical and psychosocial suffering. During reconstruction, surgeons will often graft soft tissue from other sites on the patient’s body, but that creates additional wounds. Attempts have been made to use fat cells left over after liposuction, but these cells have a limited lifespan and the implants essentially deflate within weeks.
   Dr. Mao’s plan is to create long-lasting soft tissue implants from mesenchymal stem cells harvested from the patient’s own tissues such as bone marrow or adipose tissue. Mesenchymal stem cells can differentiate into bone, fat, cartilage and other types of cells.
Using a patient’s stem cells, Dr. Mao says, results in replacement tissue that is completely compatible with the patient. Stem cells also can replenish the supply of cells in the implant to prevent shrinkage.
   Dr. Mao’s team of biologists, biomedical engineers, imaging experts, and surgeons has already shown that it can use human mesenchymal stem cells to create a long-lasting implant. The implant is created by placing these stem cells into an FDA-approved scaffold that mimics the conditions needed to turn the stem cells into fat cells.
   Dr. Mao found that when implanted into mice the stem cells successfully created fat cells and that the implants can retain their size and shape for at least a month. Because the implants can be molded into any size or shape, they may be used in the future for facial and breast reconstruction. Dr. Mao’s team has also been able to reconstruct the shape and dimensions of the bioengineered tissue from images of the patient’s soft tissue defects.
   Dr. Mao says his interest in soft tissue bioengineering grew out of his previous studies on mesenchymal stem cells and an unmet clinical need for biologically derived approach to reconstruct soft tissue. “The implants can be used for multiple purposes, but it’s really the soft tissue defects resulting from breast cancer surgeries and facial tumor surgeries that we want to be able to heal one day,” Dr. Mao says.