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University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences 

Fat Stem Cells Safe for Breast Reconstruction when Cancer is Dormant, Says Pitt Team

PITTSBURGH, Sept. 15, 2010 – Fat-derived stem cells can be safely used to aid reconstruction of breast tissue after mastectomy as long as there is no evidence of active cancer, according to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Their findings are available in Tissue Engineering Part A.

Plastic surgeons have long moved fat from one part of the body into the breasts for reconstruction, but with some complications and a varying success rate, explained senior author Vera S. Donnenberg, Ph.D., assistant professor of surgery, Pitt School of Medicine. More recently, they have considered adding stem cells derived from adipose, or fat, tissue (ADSC) or the bone marrow to the transferred fat with the aim of supporting graft integration by enhancing new blood vessel formation.

“But it has not been clear whether these stem cells are safe for breast cancer patients because they could send growth signals that promote tumor reactivation or provide new blood vessels for the tumor,” Dr. Donnenberg said. “Our research suggests that this risk is real if the patient still has active tumor cells, but is safe when the cells are inactive or resting.”

For the study, the researchers collected adipose tissue that would have been discarded during “tummy tuck” procedures performed by study co-author J. Peter Rubin, M.D., associate professor of surgery, Pitt School of Medicine, whose team has several federally funded projects underway to develop fat grafting and stem cell therapies for reconstruction of a variety of tissues.

The researchers isolated ADSC from normal fat and mixed them with human breast cancer cells obtained directly from patients. After two weeks in culture they found that ADSC greatly encouraged the growth of tumor cells. In a follow-up experiment, the researchers injected small numbers of highly purified active or resting tumor cells under the skin of mice either with ADSC or with previously irradiated tumor cells. The combination of active tumor cells and ADSC led to dramatic tumor growth, while injections of resting tumor cells were not affected by co-injection of either ADSC or irradiated tumor cells.

“There is already some clinical evidence that breast reconstruction with transplanted fat is safe.  Our findings lead us to conclude that augmentation of fat grafts with additional ADSC should be postponed until there is no evidence of active cancer,” Dr. Donnenberg said. “Our data in the mouse suggest that dormant cancer cells are not sensitive to the growth signals sent by the ADSC.”

Co-authors of the paper include Ludovic Zimmerlin, Ph.D., Albert D. Donnenberg, Ph.D., Per Basse, M.D., Ph.D., and Rodney J. Landreneau, M.D., all of the University of Pittsburgh.

The study was funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health, the Hillman Foundation, the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, the Glimmer of Hope Foundation and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania through the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

About the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

As one of the nation’s leading academic centers for biomedical research, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine integrates advanced technology with basic science across a broad range of disciplines in a continuous quest to harness the power of new knowledge and improve the human condition. Driven mainly by the School of Medicine and its affiliates, Pitt has ranked among the top 10 recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health since 1997 and now ranks fifth in the nation, according to NIH data for 2008 (the most recent year for which the data are final).

Likewise, the School of Medicine is equally committed to advancing the quality and strength of its medical and graduate education programs, for which it is recognized as an innovative leader, and to training highly skilled, compassionate clinicians and creative scientists well-equipped to engage in world-class research. The School of Medicine is the academic partner of UPMC, which has collaborated with the University to raise the standard of medical excellence in Pittsburgh and to position health care as a driving force behind the region’s economy. For more information about the School of Medicine, see www.medschool.pitt.edu.

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