Adipose Stem Cell Center (ASCC)

The Adipose Stem Cell Research Laboratory

Co-Directors: Peter Rubin, MD, FACS, Lauren E. Kokai, PhD

Research Summary

The Plastic Surgery Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh is directed by Kacey G. Marra, PhD, Associate Professor of Plastic Surgery (primary) and Bioengineering (secondary) and focuses on tissue reconstruction. As such, we have three separately housed laboratories focused on tissue engineering, transplant immunology, and pediatric craniofacial biology. Each of the laboratories is co-directed by a surgeon and a scientist. Total, we have 10 Faculty involved in our Research Laboratories.

Adipose Stem Cell Center

In 2002, founders J. Peter Rubin, MD, FACS and Kacey G. Marra, PhD formed the Tissue Engineering Research Laboratory, with a focus on soft tissue and nerve regeneration. To build upon the significant research successes and growth in both fields, a new Adipose Stem Cell Center was created in 2005 to expand the tissue engineering research laboratory to focus on efforts on Adipose Stem Cell Biology. Now co-directed by J. Peter Rubin, MD, FACS and Lauren Kokai, PhD, the ASCC focuses on research regarding the use of adipose-derived stem cells for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. In addition to stem cells, the ASCC conducts scientific investigation in multiple interdisciplinary areas, including development of novel biomaterials for soft tissue, skin and nerve regeneration, with a strong focus on polymeric materials, both native and synthetic.

There are currently 20 members in the ASCC, including high school students, undergraduate students, medical students, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, laboratory technicians, trained surgeons, general surgery residents, plastic surgery residents, and research faculty.

Research within the ASCC

            Engineered Soft Tissue Substitutes

  • Clinical Significance: While the implications of selectively manipulating fat tissue growth certainly include the treatment for obesity, there is a tremendous clinical utility for making fat grow.  An ideal soft tissue substitute for reconstructive and aesthetic surgery is yet to be identified.
  • Innovation: Adipose-derived stem cells (ASCs), the mesenchymal precursors to fat cells, are abundant within adipose tissue and can be harvested with low risk by minimally invasive procedures. We have been examining novel biodegradable scaffolds and adipose-derived stem cells as potential soft tissue engineering implants.
  • Translation: Recent initiatives have identified a tissue engineering model that can maintain fat graft retention for 6 months.  With this discovery, Dr. Rubin launched clinical trials in this area.

            Neuronal Tissue Engineering

  • Clinical Significance: There is a need for an off-the-shelf nerve guide to repair large peripheral nerve gaps, with over 200,000 patients per year requiring surgical intervention.
  • Innovation: This project, led by Dr. Marra, involves the fabrication of a nerve guide composed of biodegradable, FDA-approved polymers, cells and bioactive factors that will stimulate axon growth. Our novel approach permits a slow, controlled delivery of relevant factors or cells that will guide axons to bridge a nerve gap.
  • Translation: Our research focuses on sciatic nerve as well as the recently established median nerve defect.  We are moving forward via several industry collaborations to pursue a clinical trial for long gap extremity nerve injuries.  (Industry relationships are discussed in the following sections.)

            Wound Healing

  • Clinical Significance: Non-healing wounds afflict over two million people per year. These wounds include burns, diabetic and venous ulcers, and other chronic wounds. In addition to their morbidity, these wounds place a significant burden on healthcare costs.
  • Innovation: With leadership by Drs. Marra and Rubin, and support from the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM), we have expanded our wound healing efforts to include preclinical models of full thickness excisional defects, burn wounds, diabetic wounds, and infected wounds.
  • Translation: We have established a Wound Care Center in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania and a wound care service line within UPMC.

            Inflammation of Adipose Tissue

  • Clinical Significance: It is now known that adipose tissue is a complex and multi-faceted tissue with mechanical and endocrine functions. As a result of hypoxia following grafting or metabolic imbalances, significant inflammation occurs within adipose tissue resulting in a variety of significant and systemic co-morbidities.
  • Innovation: With leadership by Dr. Kokai and support from the Plastic Surgery Foundation, we are exploring novel adipocyte signaling mechanisms that control immune cell phenotype and promote regenerative instead of inflammatory cell phenotypes.
  • Translation: We have optimized small animal models to investigate new pharmaceuticals with anti-inflammatory and tissue healing functions in adipose tissue.