Scientists create functioning intestinal tissue from stem cells

Researchers have figured out how to turn stem cells into functioning intestinal tissue.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Scientists have used stem cells to grow functioning human intestinal tissue in the lab. Researchers at Cincinnati Children's published their study in Nature.

The hope is to one day be able to use the functioning tissue and transplant it into a sick person in need of treatment for gastrointestinal diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease.

For now, this is how the discovery unfolded in the lab. The pluripotent stem cells were put into a Petri dish. The cells formed functioning human intestinal tissue. Growth factors made the stem cells act like functioning gut tissue.

It only took 28 days for the tissue to form all three major intestinal cell types. The result? The tissue showed signs of embryonic intestinal absorption and function.

The scientists used embryonic stem cells and cells derived from reprogrammed human skin cells (hESCs), known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). The iPSCs come from human skin cells that turn into pluripotent stem cells. (The idea is to use the patient's cells to reduce the risk of rejection).

The video below shows microscopic images of intestinal tissue that grew in the lab. Essentially, the 56-day old organoid acts like fetal intestinal tissue. What's remarkable about it is that is has a functioning peptide transport system, which is critical for functioning gut tissue. The endocrine cells also show signs of hormone production.

"This is the first study to demonstrate that human pluripotent stem cells in a petri dish can be instructed to efficiently form human tissue with three-dimensional architecture and cellular composition remarkably similar to intestinal tissue," said James Wells, a researcher at the Developmental Biology at Cincinnati Children's, in a statement.

Before this discovery is used for therapeutic reasons, it could be useful as a research tool in the lab - helping researchers understand what goes on when the intestine begin to function abnormally. It could also be useful for drug design, after all that's where most of the pills we pop in our mouths end up. Animal tests are underway to see if transplanting the tissue makes sense for treating people with intestinal disease.

In related news, ABC reports that researchers at Georgetown University used spermatogonial stem cells to create pancreatic tissue. The pancreatic beta cells produce insulin, which is needed to treat diabetes.

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