Research Highlights

Fat grown in the lab

Published online 15 January 2012

Researchers induce stem cells to form fat tissue.

Moheb Costandi

Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) can be programmed to form two different types of functional fat cells in mice, according to new research published online this week in Nature Cell Biology.

The embryonic cells are pluripotent in that they are thought to retain the ability to generate every cell type in the human body. Certain immature cells of the human body can also be induced in the lab to form a variety of cell types. These so-called induced human pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) might also be useful to develop models of a variety of human diseases.

A group of researchers, led by Chad Cowan of Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts, which includes Heba Al-Siddiqi of the Qatar Foundation, Doha, transformed three hESC lines and two hiPSC lines into fat cells in two steps.

First, they induced the cell lines into intermediate cells called mesenchymal progenitor cells. Then, using genetically engineered viruses carrying genes that regulate development of fatty tissue, they programmed those cells to differentiate into white and brown fat cells.

Cowan and the team showed that the resulting cells exhibit the same properties as mature fat cells: in structure, genes expression and the metabolism of fatty acids. In mice, transplanted cells formed fatty 'pads' that had all the structural and functional characteristics of adipose tissue.

"Adipose tissue plays an important role in obesity-related diseases such as coronary heart disease and diabetes," says Cowan, "but adipocytes are difficult to maintain in the lab, for a number of reasons. For example, they do not divide so you cannot keep a continuous supply for experiments, and they are filled with lipids and thus they float instead of adhering to the Petri dish."

The ability to generate adipocytes from stem cells should help researchers maintain the cells for longer in the lab and help them gain a better understanding of their role in disease.


  1. Ahfeldt, T., et al. Programming human pluripotent stem cells into white and brown adipocytes. Nature Cell Biology (2012) doi:10.1038/ncb2411