University of Edinburgh Centre for Regenerative Medicine, Medical Research – MRC – Professor Clare Blackburn was the study leader of a research team that has finally managed for the very first time, employing laboratory-created, reprogrammed cells, to build a complete and functional organ in a living animal.
These ground-breaking British scientists created a fully functional and complete working thymus, which in anatomical terms is a nerve center, located near the heart, that is vital to the immune system. The methods employed have to date only been used on mice, but the team are convinced that they could in future help to provide replacement organs for people.
Such an advance in application could be a decade away, but this first step is very promising, and was taken through bypassing the usual generating of blank slate stem cells, but instead directly converting mouse embryo connective tissue cells, by altering a DNA genetic switch, into thymic epithelial cells -TECs – which were then mixed with other thymus cell types and transplanted into mice.
The study team found that these cells then spontaneously organised themselves, growing quite rapidly into a complete structured Thymus, The comment about this astonishing achievement was that this was akin to finding one of the so-called Holy Grails of the science of regenerative medicine, namely the ability to grow replacement organs from cells in the laboratory.
Through the direct reprogramming of cells, the researchers produced artificial cell types capable, when put in place, of forming complete and functional organs. The Thymus is the heart of the immune system, priming T-cells to attack intruders and protect the body. Those lacking a Thymus are highly infection prone, something experienced by bone marrow transplant patients.
Very few people, perhaps one in 4,000 has a malfunctioning or absent thymus, and for those affected, the news of this incredible breakthrough will be welcome indeed. Though smaller parts of organs have successfully been created, no one had ever succeeded in producing a fully intact organ from cells created outside the body, so this is genuinely a major step forward.
MRC head of regenerative medicine at the MRC, Dr Rob Buckle commented that such technology, once perfected and approved, could remove the need for whole organ transplantation, and the inherent risks carried by such procedures, alongside making the question of organ availability less pressing. He pointed out that there would, of course, have to be extensive research conducted for some years yet, before it could become standard practice, but that a giant step had at last been taken in the right direction.
Image via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organ_printing#mediaviewer/File:Mouse_embryonic_stem_cells.jpg
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