- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2004

Stem cells from fat tissue have been used to help grow bone to repair the damaged skull of a 7-year-old German girl, according to a report in a German medical journal.

The child, who was not identified, had more than a foot and a half of her skull destroyed in a fall in 2001. Before the corrective surgery last year, she wore a protective helmet, and her brain could sometimes be seen pulsating through missing areas of her skull.

But several weeks after the stem-cell surgery, the little girl no longer needed the helmet, according to the report in the December issue of Journal of Cranio-Maxilliofacial Surgery.

Today, says the study’s lead investigator, Dr. Hans-Peter Howaldt of Justus-Liebig University Medical Center in Giessen, Germany, the child’s skull is smooth to the touch, and its missing parts have been replaced by thin but solid bone.

“I cannot prove that our success came from the stem cells alone, but the combination [of stem cells and bone from the child’s pelvis] clearly worked” in creating additional skull bone, Dr. Howaldt told the Associated Press.

In a interview yesterday, Dr. Roy C. Ogle, a stem-cell researcher and specialist in skull reconstruction surgery at the University of Virginia, called the report a “landmark study.”

“There’s no way to know if stem cells caused the healing,” Dr. Ogle said. “But it’s still a landmark study, since this was the first time that adult stem cells were placed in a human — actually close to the brain — and did no harm.”

Most stem-cell research has been in animal models.

Dr. Lillian Shum, of the National Institute of Dental and Cranial Facial Research, said of the German report: “This is a very promising and exciting area to look at. There’s a lot of interest in trying to use stem cells from fat to grow bones.”

Dr. Ogle added that such research has been conducted in rats for five years. He said, however, that he’s not sure the German experiment would pass ethical muster in the United States, but plans to ask an ethics board at the University of Virginia if it thinks it would.

According to the study, the bone recovered from the girl’s pelvis was milled into chips about .1 inch long and placed in missing areas of the skull. Surgeons then added the fat-derived stem cells to the bone chips. The bone chips appeared to direct the stem cells to make bone, Dr. Howaldt said.

The method used to harvest the stem cells from fat was developed by a firm based in Frankfurt, Germany, called MacroPore Biosurgery, Inc., which announced the study results in conjunction with the university.

However, Dr. Ogle said he’s concerned that MacroPore will profit from the research if it is replicated. The company and one of its former officials were listed as investigators in the study.

He said many of his colleagues were “astonished” by what the German researchers did.

“Most surgeons would have used collagen or a mineral paste [to augment the girl’s damaged skull]. It was really extremely unusual for them to go ahead with stem cells,” the doctor said, adding that he anticipates this report to “generate a lot of controversy,” especially in the United States, even though the use of adult stem cells tends to raise fewer ethical concerns than embryonic stem cells.

Some equate the required destruction of embryos in the harvesting of embryonic stem cells as murder.

“Clearly, Europeans, such as the Germans, Poles, French, Spanish and Italians, subscribe to a different set of ethics than the ones we have in this country,” Dr. Ogle said.

In August, other German researchers reported growing a jaw bone in a man’s back muscle and transplanting it to his mouth to fill a gap left by cancer surgery. The researchers used bone marrow, which also contains stem cells, to help grow bone. But the scientists said it’s not clear whether stem cells were responsible for the growth.

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