Most people would be happy to get rid of excess body fat. Even better: Trade the spare tire for something useful — say, better-functioning knees or hips, or a fix for an ailing heart or a broken bone.
The idea is not far-fetched, some scientists say. Researchers worldwide are repurposing discarded fat to repair body parts damaged by injury, disease or age. Recent studies in lab animals and humans show that the much-maligned material can be a source of cells useful for treating a wide range of ills.
At the University of Pittsburgh, bioengineer Rocky Tuanand colleagues extract buckets full of yellow fat from volunteers’ bellies and thighs and turn the liposuctioned material into tissue that resembles shock-absorbing cartilage. If the cartilage works as well in people as it has in animals, Tuan’s approach might someday offer a kind of self-repair for osteoarthritis, the painful degeneration of cartilage in the joints. He’s also using fat cells to grow replacement parts for the tendons and ligaments that support the joints.