Fat Cells to Stem Cells - A Moonshot Idea
Tom Spendlove posted on September 19, 2013 | 9535 views

Susan Lim's TED Talk, Transplant Cells, Not Organs addresses the problem of organ shortage among liver patients. The supply of organs has remained constant but demand has grown steadily since the 1980s. More than a dozen patients die each day because of a lack of donor organs.

The donor pool has grown from brain dead only donors, to living related donors to living unrelated donors but the supply is still not enough. It is difficult to determine if a living organ donation is from a willing donor or if the donation has been coerced. In some areas the gifting of an organ in trade for a monetary reward is an unsafe and immoral practice. Retrieving organs from executed prisoners and transplanting them to patients in the same day led Susan to seek out a better way.


In the late 80s surgery moved from large incisions to small pinholes for many transplant operations, and Lim was inspired to research cell transplants instead of organ transplants. She focused her research on organ stem cells, and adipose stem cells. Fat cells, Susan tells us, are in abundant supply. In 2007 researchers discovered that adult cells could be reprogrammed into iPS cells (induced pluripotent stem cells.)


Lim's current work is concentrating on taking mounds of fat and reformatting them into youthful healthy cells. Current potential exists for stem cells to fight everything from heart failure to Alzheimer's disease.

In May 2006 while preparing for a robotic surgery Susan noticed problems with her vision. After three months of recovery time she gained massive amounts of empathy for her patients, especially those with retina disease.

When our organs or tissues are injured our bone marrow releases stem cells into the bloodstream to release growth factors to repair the damaged tissue. Stem cells might someday be used as building blocks to repair damaged organs in the body.


Susan finishes the talk with the hope that an aging population can find longevity with an improved quality of life.

Recommended For You