Researchers have isolated stem cells from human skin and coaxed them into becoming fat, muscle and bone cells.

Stem cells are able to become any type of tissue. Harvesting of stem cells from embryos has been highly controversial, so researchers have looked for alternatives that, while not as useful, might fulfill some needs.

The new study, detailed today in the journal Stem Cells and Development, is among the first to actually show the ability of a single adult stem cell to become multiple tissue types.

"These cells should provide a valuable resource for tissue repair and for organs as well," said Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and senior researcher on the project. "Because these cells are taken from a patient's own skin, there would not be problems with organ or tissue rejection."

The researchers grew mesenchymal stem cells, a type normally found in bone marrow. The tissue came from 15 donors who had routine circumcisions. When the cells were cultured and then seeded onto three-dimensional molds and implanted in mice, they maintained features consistent with bone, muscle and fat tissue.

"Our study shows that stem cells can be obtained from a simple skin biopsy and can be made to become three vital tissues," said Shay Soker, associate professor of surgery at Wake Forest's School of Medicine. "The bulk of our bodies is made up of fat, muscle and bone."

Scientists hope to harness the potential of stem cells and use them to replace damaged cells and tissue in conditions such as spinal cord injuries, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, stroke and burns.

 "Compared to bone marrow, a skin biopsy is easy to take, so it offers advantages for clinical use," said Soker. "The cells can be obtained from any small sample of human skin."

The scientists plan further tests of the tissues they've created to see how they function over time.

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