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Tissue Eng. 2004 Mar-Apr;10(3-4):381-91.

Subcutaneous adipocytes can differentiate into bone-forming cells in vitro and in vivo.

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  • 1University Department of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Aarhus Amtssygehus, DK-8000 Aarhus, Denmark.


Interconversion of bone marrow osteoblasts and adipocytes has been reported previously. However, the osteogenic potential of extramedullary adipocytes is not known. Thus, we incubated a pure culture of human subcutaneous adipocytes in control medium for 1-2 weeks. Afterward, the cells were incubated in either osteoblast medium (OB medium) containing various combinations of calcitriol, dexamethasone, ascorbic acid, and beta-glycerophosphate or in adipocyte medium (AD medium) containing HEPES, biotin, pantothenate, insulin, triiodothyronine, dexamethasone, and isobutylmethylxanthine for 4 weeks. Expression of osteoblastic and adipocytic phenotypes was examined by determination of lineage-specific mRNA markers and in vitro adipocyte and osteoblast formation. Cells were also implanted, mixed with hydroxyapatite-tricalcium phosphate powder, in the subcutaneous tissue of immunodeficient mice in order to assess in vivo bone formation potential. One week after incubation in control medium, cells formed fusiform elongated fibroblast-like cells. In OB medium, cells stained positive for alkaline phosphatase (AP) and expressed mRNAs encoding Cbfa1/Runx2, AP, and osteocalcin. In AD medium cells reacquired adipocyte morphology with multilocular lipid-filled cells. Also, the cells expressed adipocyte-specific mRNA markers: lipoprotein lipase and peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma2. Bone was formed only in the in vivo implants of cells incubated in OB medium. In conclusion, extramedullary adipocytes can transdifferentiate to bone-forming cells. Because of their ease of isolation, adipocytes may be good candidates for tissue-engineering protocols aimed at creating bone tissue for the repair of nonunion fractures and large bone defects.

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