Scientists believe it may be possible to treat circulatory problems by giving patients a dose of their own fat cells.
Blood vessel growth may aid cardiac patients
They have shown that stromal cells found in human fat can stimulate the growth of new blood vessels to boost oxygen supply to the tissues.
It may be possible to use the cells as a treatment for people with heart disease and angina.
The research, published in the journal Circulation, was carried out by Indiana University School of Medicine.
Lead researcher Dr Jalees Rehman said: "A lot of people can grow their own blood vessels and when they have blockages in their arteries, their bodies naturally compensate.
"People who cannot grow blood vessels are the ones who may benefit from this research.
"An example would be individuals who have severe chest pains from angina, which is caused by reduced blood flow to the heart."
Dr Rehman said stromal cell therapy could also potentially help people whose circulation is so bad that they face having their legs amputated.
Fat contains large numbers of stromal cells, which are effectively immature fat cells that retain the potential to turn into other types of tissue.
In that respect they resemble stem cells, which have been touted as a potential treatment for many medical problems, from paralysis to heart disease.
The Indiana team found that stromal cells manufacture several chemicals called growth factors, which can stimulate the formation of natural blood cells.
If scientists could find a way to control this process - known as angiogenesis - it could lead to new treatments for both heart disease, and cancer.
Low oxygen levels
Research has shown that stromal cells release more growth factors when oxygen levels are low - as they can be in patients with poor circulation.
Dr Rehman said: "Instead of treating patients with a single growth factor, you could treat them by strategically placing their own stromal cells which respond to low oxygen and adapt to that need
"For instance, if an individual who has impaired blood flow to the heart climbs a flight of stairs every day, his body will sense a need for more oxygen to the heart and the stromal cells would respond by releasing more growth factors."
Dr Keith March, director of the Indiana Center for Vascular Biology and Medicine, said the process would not work overnight, but with time the cells could stimulate the production of blood vessels to supply oxygen to the heart or to the legs.
He said: "Stromal cell treatment ideally would allow the bodies of individuals with impaired circulation to compensate in the same way as the bodies of people who can grow their own blood vessels."
The easiest way to collect stromal cells is through standard liposuction, which could help patients lose weight at the same time.
Dr Tim Bowker, associate medical director of the British Heart Foundation, said the best way to tackle heart disease was to stress prevention rather than cure.
He said: "We encourage people to adopt lifestyles that will help prevent them becoming overweight or obese.
"This will reduce their risk of developing heart disease and needing heart surgery.
"There is some evidence that immature cells - whether they are found in fat or other human tissue - can be used to grow new blood vessels.
"This approach needs further study to see if it can become a suitable treatment for heart disease."