Scientists Create Functional Lungs Using Human Stem Cells
December 2, 2013

Scientists Create Functional Lung Cells Using Human Stem Cells

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Scientists have used human stem cells to create functional lung and airway cells, according to a study published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

The latest research, reported by a team from Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC), could have significant potential for modeling lung disease, screening drugs, studying human lung development, and generating lung tissue for transplantation.

"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," stated study leader Hans-Willem Snoeck, MD, PhD, professor of medicine in microbiology and immunology. "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."

In 2011, Snoeck discovered a set of chemical factors that can turn human embryonic stem (ES) cells or human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells into anterior foregut endoderm. In the latest study, the team found new factors that complete the transformation of human ES or iPS cells into functioning lung epithelial cells.

The team discovered that cells were found to express markers of at least six types of lung and airway epithelial cells, particularly markers of type 2 alveolar epithelial cells. These type 2 cells are important because they produce a substance critical to maintaining the lung alveoli, where gas exchange takes place. These cells also help to repair the lung after injury and damage.

The study’s findings could have large implications for a number of lung diseases, including idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF).

"No one knows what causes the disease, and there's no way to treat it," Snoeck said. "Using this technology, researchers will finally be able to create laboratory models of IPF, study the disease at the molecular level, and screen drugs for possible treatments or cures."

He said that they hope to use this technology to make an autologous lung graft. This treatment would entail taking a lung from a donor, removing all the cells to leave behind only the lung scaffold, and seeding the scaffold with new lung cells derived from the patient. Snoek said that this method could help to avoid rejection problems.

Snoeck is working with colleagues in the Columbia University Department of Biomedical Engineering on the autologous lung graft technique.

"I am excited about this collaboration with Hans Snoeck, integrating stem cell science with bioengineering in the search for new treatments for lung disease,"stated  Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, co-author of the paper and Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Columbia's Engineering School and professor of medical sciences at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.