Could Science Use Stem Cells to Grow Organs? New Study Suggests It’s Possible Someday

Stem cell therapy is an exciting emerging science, but it is still in its early development. We’ve seen patients experience promising results and increased healing with treatments for shoulders, knees, and back, but we can’t always guarantee a definite outcome, since everyone is different. It’s not a proven therapy, but it is an evolving treatment that is highly promising.

That said, because scientists are in the earlier stages of discovery when it comes to stem cells and how they work, new developments are being uncovered all the time.

In fact, researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital recently discovered how to use stem cells to generate a mini liver, pancreas and biliary ducts.

It’s the world’s first-ever set of three functional organoids, liver, pancreas and biliary ducts, that functions as one system. The findings were published last September in Nature.

Could Stem Cells Grow Replacement Organs One Day?

The discovery could be the beginning of a future where waiting lists for organ transplants become a thing of the past, where stem cells could be used to grow entirely new organs for transplant. An average of 20 people die everyday waiting for an organ transplant, and approximately 113,000 people in the U.S. are on the national transplant waiting list, according to data from the Human Resources and Services Administration.

Organoids Explained

Organoids can help treat and cure disease. They are developed using a specific patient’s stem cells that are then used to test how patient response to a drug or to create personalized treatments, lead scientist Takanori Takebe, M.D., and assistant professor at Cincinnati Children’s, told FierceHealthcare.

New Findings Provide Insight into Tissue Development

The new development of growing 3 interworking organoids enable research on how human tissues work on a complete system.

“Over the past 10 years, we have tried to connect different organ domains, but never succeeded,” Takebe said. “What we have done is to take nature’s capacity to self-develop, and we designed the best timing for the cells to trigger their intrinsic development capacity. That was exciting.”

Exciting Research Potential for Cancer Treatment

The research shows great promise in curing diseases.

“Organoids are not ready for transplantation therapies yet, but they are incredibly useful as patient avatars,” James Wells, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at Cincinnati Children’s CuSTOM, said last year during a TEDxCincinnati presentation. “With cancer, one drug might cure cancer in one patient and create great harm in another patient. My lab is growing organoids from cancer patients and giving them to cancer biologists who are using them to test whether a drug might actually work on that type of cancer for that patient.”

The models lack the complexity of true organs, but can be valuable research tools in learning how tissues interact in the body.

“Our focus was on generating a hepato-biliary-pancreatic organoid, which would allow us to better understand how the liver, bile duct, pancreas and associated tissues form during embryonic development and how they normally function together,” Dr. Takebe explained in a press release.

Models for the Future

Regardless, it’s an exciting development because of the complexity of the organoids and what they have to teach about organ function.

“What we are most excited about is the sophistication of the organoid,” said Hiroyuki Koike, Ph.D., one of the researchers involved in developing the technique. “We could see branches that directly connected the bile duct to the pancreas. Amazingly, the pancreatic tissue that emerged was able to secrete digestive enzymes through the ducts, similar to how the true organ would function.”

There is still much to learn.

“There are still a number of challenges in the field with respect to creating a robust multi-organ model system that can be easily manipulated in a research setting,” Dr. Takebe added. “The work here shows that it is possible to create such a system using human pluripotent stem cells. This is quite exciting, as it lends credibility to the idea that stem cells might be used to make personalized models to study how organs form and how genetic mutations lead to organ malfunction.”

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