Scientists have successfully directed mouse stem cells to turn into the type of cells needed for gas exchange in lungs. This brings the prospect of being able to regenerate damaged lung tissue, and even of creating artificially grown lungs, one step closer.
Dr. Anne Bishop, from Imperial College of London Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Centre at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, comments: "This research will make it possible eventually to repair lungs that have been damaged by disease, by implanting fully functioning lung cells to repopulate damaged areas. Also, unlike transplantation from a donor, the cells can be developed in such a way that the body will not reject them."
The research, the first of its kind in the world, involved taking mouse stem cells, and then placing them in a specialized growth system which encouraged them to change into the cells that line the part of the lung where oxygen is absorbed and carbon dioxide excreted.
Professor Julia Polak, Director of the Centre, adds: "This is the first time research of this nature has been carried out, and it has provided us with a crucial building block towards being able to construct lung tissue. It could eventually mean the end of extensive transplant waiting lists for critically ill patients."
The researchers now plan to use their findings to begin development of a living construct, using specially designed bioactive foams and scaffolds. The bioactive scaffolds will provide a frame on which the cells can grow, and then be transplanted.
Lung disease continues to be a major cause of death in the UK and a large-scale clinical problem. Life-threatening lung diseases include emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cystic fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension.
The only sure way of addressing end-stage lung disease is transplantation from another person. Transplantation has revolutionized the approach to end stage pulmonary diseases and it has allowed patients to regain 10 to 20 years of active life.
However, there are two major drawbacks to "conventional" transplantation: the chronic shortage of donor organs and the risk of rejection of the organs after transplantation. This new discovery could address both these issues, say the scientists.
Stem cells have great therapeutic potential. Diseases that are candidates for stem cell therapy include lung disease, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's disease and heart disease.
(Reference: Derivation of type II alveolar epithelial cells from murine embryonic stem cells - Tissue Engineering Journal, August 2002 [Vol, 8, No. 4].)
Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine
Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Centre
[Contact: Tony Stephenson]