BACKGROUND: Many breast cancer patients are plagued by the disabling complication of upper limb lymphedema after axillary surgery. Conservative treatments using massage and compression therapy do not offer a lasting relief, as they fail to address the chronic transformation of edema into excess adipose tissue. Liposuction to address the adipose nature of the lymphedema has provided an opportunity for a detailed analysis of the stromal fraction of lymphedema-associated fat to clarify the molecular mechanisms for this adipogenic transformation. METHODS: Adipose-derived stem cells were harvested from human lipoaspirate of the upper extremity from age-matched patients with lymphedema (n = 3) or subcutaneous adipose tissue from control patients undergoing cosmetic procedures (n = 3). Immediately after harvest, adipose-derived stem cells were analyzed using single-cell transcriptional profiling techniques. Osteogenic, adipogenic, and vasculogenic gene expression and differentiation were assessed by quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction and standard in vitro differentiation assays. RESULTS: Differential transcriptional clusters of adipose-derived stem cells were found between lymphedema and subcutaneous fat. Interestingly, lymphedema-associated stem cells had a much higher adipogenic gene expression and enhanced ability to undergo adipogenic differentiation. Conversely, they had lower vasculogenic gene expression and diminished capability to form tubules in vitro, whereas the osteogenic differentiation capacity was not significantly altered. CONCLUSIONS: Adipose-derived stem cells from extremities affected by lymphedema appear to exhibit transcriptional profiles similar to those of abdominal adipose-derived stem cells; however, their adipogenic differentiation potential is strongly increased and their vasculogenic capacity is compromised. These results suggest that the underlying pathophysiology of lymphedema drives adipose-derived stem cells toward adipogenic differentiation.
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