Jalees Rehman in Aeon:
“Why don’t you use fat?” I stared at Keith, not quite sure whether he was serious or just kidding. Did he really think we could use fat to regenerate the heart?
I had joined Keith March’s research laboratory at Indiana University as a postdoctoral fellow in the summer of 2001. At the time, his group was trying to improve upon stents, small mesh tubes that can be placed inside blocked coronary arteries to keep them open, restoring an adequate supply of blood and oxygen to the heart. But even the best stents were no cure for heart tissue that had already been irreversibly damaged by a heart attack. The wave of the future, I felt, was the newly emerging field of cardiovascular regeneration, the idea of using stem cells to repair the heart and grow new blood vessels.
Yet when Keith suggested I use fat to generate those cells, I thought he was making an inside joke. We were both overweight and often made fun of ourselves. And the history of fat cures was rife with superstition and myth. For centuries, people had believed that rubbing one’s arms and legs with balms made out of human fat could cure broken bones, crippled limbs and joint pains. Societal mores prevented the dissection of human bodies for the purpose of removing human fluids or tissues, but these rules didn’t apply to executed criminals, especially when there were no family members to claim the body. Until the mid-18th century, this presented a lucrative opportunity for a group of social outcasts: executioners, who became expert extractors, with a skill-set and knowledge of anatomy that often surpassed that of academic physicians. In her book, Defiled Trades and Social Outcasts (2000), the historian Kathy Stuart from the University of California, Davis, gives a gripping account of the work and lives of executioners. Some executioners even started their own medical practices, selling products such as human fat themselves.