Scientists grow brain and lung tissue with the help of embryonic stem cells.
By manipulating embryonic stem cells, scientists in the United Kingdom have successfully grown human brain and lung tissue. The breakthroughs raise hope for a cure to Alzheimer’s disease and the possibility of growing human lungs for transplant.
Living cells taken from the brain stems of human embryos can be programmed to develop into many different types of human tissue, including bone, skin, and nerve. Though the procedure remains controversial, research is proceeding in many countries.
To make lung tissue, researchers affiliated with Imperial College London used a process that converted or “directed” embryonic stem cells into mature small-airway ephithalimum cells, which line the portion of the lung where oxygen is absorbed and carbon dioxide is excreted.
Dame Julia Polak, who led the research team, remarked, “This is a very exciting development and could be a huge step towards being able to build human lungs for transplantation or to repair lungs severely damaged by incurable diseases such as cancer.” According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the most common cancer worldwide and killed more than 1.18 million people across the globe in 2002. The Imperial College researchers believe their findings may also be effective against acute respiratory distress syndrome, which afflicts primarily intensive-care patients.
In a separate development, researchers affiliated with the Scottish group Stem Cell Sciences (SCS) have discovered a new technique for growing the cells that help make up the brain and nervous system. SCS chief executive Peter Mountford believes the development could lead to new lines of cell-based drugs and treatments.
Many researchers consider cell-based therapies to be among the most-promising areas of medical science. Blood transfusions and bone marrow transplantation are two examples of cell-based therapies already in use, but recent advances in cellular and molecular biology have expanded the potential applications of cell-based cures.
Most common diseases develop due to alterations in the interactions of cells’ components. Cell-based therapy responds to the unique genetic makeup of individual patients and their equally individual illnesses. Such therapies may one day be used to deliver drugs to specific locations in the body more efficiently, help patients rebuild or augment their immune systems, and regenerate and replace tissue.
The researchers at SCS believe the new technique for growing brain tissue will eventually help doctors build replacement neural or brain matter for people who suffer from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. A 2003 Swedish study estimates that Alzheimer’s disease afflicts 27.7 million people globally.
A more immediate use for the new science exists in the field of drug testing. Testing drug prototypes on real human cells gives drug makers a more accurate sense of how effective, and dangerous, new therapies might be before they go to trial. The use of human cells may also cut down on the number of animal experiments that are necessary before new drugs can be brought to market.
“The remarkable stability and purity of the cells is something unique in the field of tissue stem cells and a great leap forward,” says SCS chief science officer Tim Allsopp. “We have already been approached by pharmaceutical companies interested in using these cells to test and develop new drugs, and are looking forward to working with them to further develop and license the technology.”
The United Kingdom is a primary destination for embryonic stem-cell research due to the strength of its science institutions and supportive legal and political climate. The United Kingdom has “the most forward-looking environment for research involving human embryos,” says SCS’s Mountford. Other research hubs exist in Australia, Japan, and-despite some political resistance in terms of funding for new stem-cell lines-the United States. -Patrick Tucker
Sources: Imperial College London, Media Office, Level 4, Faculty Building, London SW7 2AZ, United Kingdom. Web site http://www.imperial .ac.uk.
Stem Cell Sciences United Kingdom, Roger Land Building, King’s Building, University of Edinburgh, West Mains Road, Edinburgh EH9 3JQ, United Kingdom. Web site http://www.stemcell sciencesltd.com.
Recent Breakthroughs in Stem-Cell Research
* Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison transformed embryonic stem cells into spinal motor neurons. The findings were published in January 2005 in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
* Scientists with the Austrian Science Fund have discovered that the protein SPARC effects the activity of the gene responsible for the emergence of heart cells from undifferentiated embryonic stem cells. The finding may help scientists develop cell therapies to treat heart-attack patients.
* In December 2005, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, reported successfully implanting undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells into the developing brains of two-week-old mouse embryos. As the animals grew, the cells matured into fully functional adult brain cells integrated with the animals’ nervous systems.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, March-April 2006