Fat stem cells harm rather than help

A type of stem cell found in the fat of obese mice promotes inflammation and fibrosis.

Image credit: Hepler et al. (CC BY 4.0)

Fat tissue, also known as white adipose tissue, specializes in storing excess calories. Much of this storage happens under the skin, but fat tissue can also build up inside the abdomen and surround organs, where it is known as ‘visceral’ fat. When visceral fat tissue is unhealthy, it may help diseases such as diabetes and heart disease to develop.

Unhealthy fat tissue contains enlarged fat cells, which may die from overwork. The stress this places on the surrounding tissue activates the immune system, causing inflammation and the build-up of collagen fibers around the cells (a condition known as fibrosis). Not all people develop this type of unhealthy fat tissue, but we do not yet understand why.

In many tissues, blood vessels serve as a home for several types of adult stem cells that help to rejuvenate the tissue following damage. To identify these cells, Hepler et al. analyzed the genes used by more than 3,000 cells living around the blood vessels in the visceral fat of adult mice. Recent work had already revealed that stem cells called adipocyte precursor cells live in this region. Hepler et al. now reveal the presence of a second group of cells, termed fibro-inflammatory progenitor cells (or FIPs for short).

To investigate the roles of each cell type in more detail, Hepler et al. developed a new technique to isolate the adipocyte precursor cells from other cell types. When grown in the right conditions in petri dishes, the adipocyte precursor cells were able to form new fat cells. They could also make new fat cells when transplanted into mice that lacked fat tissue. By contrast, the FIPs can suppress the activity of adipocyte precursor cells and activate immune cells. They may also help fibrosis to develop.

It is not yet clear whether FIPs are present in human fat tissue. But, if they are, understanding them in greater detail may suggest new ways to treat diabetes and heart disease in obese people.