Researchers from the Columbia University Medical Center claim they are one step closer to generating lung tissue for transplant using a patient’s own cells.
The study, published in Nature Biotechnology, states that scientists have successfully transformed human stem cells into functioning lung and airway cells. They claim this has great potential for modelling lung disease, screening drugs and, ultimately, generating lung tissue for transplantation.
Study leader Dr. Hans-Willem Snoeck, affiliated with the Columbia Center for Translational Immunology and the Columbia Stem Cell Initiative, explains the importance of this finding:
“Researchers have had relative success in turning human stem cells into heart cells, pancreatic beta cells, intestinal cells, liver cells and nerve cells, raising all sorts of possibilities for regenerative medicine.”
Dr. Snoeck adds:
“Now, we are finally able to make lung and airway cells. This is important because lung transplants have a particularly poor prognosis. Although any clinical application is still many years away, we can begin thinking about making autologous lung transplants – that is, transplants that use a patient’s own skin cells to generate functional lung tissue.”
Six different types of cell
Dr. Snoeck’s previous research has revealed a set of chemical factors that can turn human embryonic stem cells or human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) into precursors of lung and airway cells.
The researchers explain that iPS cells closely resemble embryonic stem cells but are generated from skin cells. By encouraging them to take a developmental step backward, they can be coaxed into differentiating into specialized cells – allowing researchers an alternative to human embryonic stem cells.
Continuing from this research, Dr. Snoeck and his team discovered new factors that change the embryonic stem cells or iPS cells into functional lung epithelial cells – the cells that cover the lungs’ surface.
These cells were found to express markers for at least six different types of lung and airway cells, including markers for type 2 alveolar epithelial cells.
Lung epithelial cells are particularly important, as they produce surfactants – lipoprotein complexes essential for maintaining the lung alveoli, where gas exchange takes place. These cells also help repair the lungs after injury or damage.
The researchers claim this has implications for diseases such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), in which the type 2 cells are thought to play a central part.
Dr. Snoeck hopes this technology will enable researchers to “create laboratory models of IPF, study the disease at the molecular level, and screen drugs for possible treatments or cures.”
Looking to the future, Dr. Snoeck and his team are optimistic that the technology will lead to autologous lung grafts. He explains:
“This would entail taking a lung from a donor; removing all the lung cells, leaving only the lung scaffold; and seeding the scaffold with new lung cells derived from the patient. In this way, rejection problems could be avoided.”
Medical News Today recently reported that scientists found the transplantation of bigger lungs is associated with higher survival rates in transplant patients.
Written by Belinda Weber