New Technique Coaxes Stem Cells Into Complex Tissues

A novel technique developed at MIT brings growing personalised organs closer to reality

Growing organs with a patient's own cells, and quickly, is an ideal medical scenario. We've made great strides in stem cell biology towards this end, but creating complex tissue from these cultures is extremely intricate work.  

"Imagine that there is a patient with liver complications.We could take skin cells from that person and then [convert] them into stem cells, and then genetically program them to make the liver tissue, and transplant that into the patient"

Creating a new technique

In pursuit of a method to transform stem cells into pancreatic beta cells for diabetic patients, researchers took induced pluripotent cells, iPSCs, made from skin cells. They then converted them into a type of tissue called endoderm, which is one of 3 primary types in a developing organism alongside mesoderm and ectoderm. Embryonic stem cells transform into one of these 3 types at the beginning of development. In order to morph the cells into endoderm varieties, they used a molecule called Dox to induce the cells to make a protein named GATA6. This protein triggers an endoderm transformation. 

Allowing a growth period

Instead of immediately interfering in the process, the researchers let these endoderm cells simply grow for a period and monitored them. Curiously, they began to mature and form many different cell types - even forming a small liver bud. 

An image taken at day nine of the MIT study

"We observed the development of many cells types found in the fetal liver, including the development of blood vessel-like networks, various mesenchymal precursors, and the formation of early red and white blood cells within our liver-like tissue. The fact that we are able to produce endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm gives us great hope that we can take each of these germ layers and hopefully grow any kind of tissue we want"

This process can be altered

What was even more exciting, was that by affecting the level of GATA6 produced, cells were coaxed into different tissue types. Only those who had been exposed to more treatment and produced more of the protein were able to become liver tissue. Those that had not became ectoderm and eventually forebrain tissue. 

Human prostate cells taken from an organoid 

While admittedly growing entire organs requires more work, this kind of knowledge could quickly lead to production of small, personalised organs that are ideal for drug testing. Further study of the cell development could also yield more clues about the development process itself. 

 

 

 

"As people age, some are taking 10, 15, or 20 drugs together, and it's impossible for the pharmaceutical companies to test all of these combinations for every individual. But we would be able to test that out"

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