Researchers have discovered that adipose stem cells—adult stem cells found in fatty tissue—can be used to treat chronic wounds, severe burns and diseases characterized by poor circulation.

A team of UVA scientists has taken the next step and developed new techniques that allow adipose stem cells to enhance their therapeutic potential. “It’s not just the cells per se, it’s also how you prepare, grow and deliver the cells,” says Dr. Adam J. Katz, a UVA professor in plastic surgery who led the team.

The new technique cultures the cells upside down, on an inverted well plate invented by the team. On this plate, cells bind to each other—not to the plate, as they do in the traditional method—in a 3-D structure, which changes the cells’ genetic expression and bioactivity, Katz says. These changes may make the cells more effective in treating disease. Cells grown in a 3-D structure create a microenvironment, or niche, that more closely mimics the architecture that cells normally and naturally experience in vivo. When formulated into 3-D spheroids, the cells secrete more efficiently various substances that are implicated in wound healing and tissue repair.

New research has shown that adult stem cells—including those from fat—likely help heal and repair tissue primarily by secreting important growth factors that affect inflammation, blood vessel growth and cell survival aspects of the wound-healing process. This is in contrast to older theories that postulated the cells would actually replace missing or lost cells of a given tissue.

The 3-D structuring technique and the inverted plate are among several technologies that Katz seeks to translate to the clinic.