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Dec 07, 2013 07:34 AM EST

Columbia Researchers Grow Lung Cells from Human Stem Cells

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Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center have successfully transformed human stem cells into functional lung and airway cells.

This breakthrough could ultimately lead to the creation of lung tissue to be used in transplantation, developing models of human lung disease, testing drugs and studying human lung development.

"Researchers have had relative success in turning human stem cells into heart cells, pancreatic beta cells, intestinal cells, liver cells, and nerve cells, raising all sorts of possibilities for regenerative medicine," study leader Dr. Hans-Willem Snoeck said in a statement. "Now, we are finally able to make lung and airway cells.

"This is important because lung transplants have a particularly poor prognosis. Although any clinical application is still many years away, we can begin thinking about making autologous lung transplants-that is, transplants that use a patient's own skin cells to generate functional lung tissue."

This experiment follows a 2011 trial by Snoeck and his team that enabled them to convert human embryonic stem (ES) cells or human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells into anterior foregut endoderm, cells that could be grown into lung and airway cells.

In the new experiment, the scientists were able to create functional lung and airway cells from both types of stem cells - Embryonic (controversial as it involves killing of embryos) and pluripotent stem cells (non-controversial as the cells are taken from the human skin).

They generated six types of functional lung epithelial cells (cells that cover the lung surface). It also includeed type 2 alveolar epithelial cells that maintain the lung alveoli (where gas exchange takes place) and repair the lung after injury and damage.

This finding could help create better medications for patients with lung diseases such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). In this disease, type 2 alveolar epithelial cells are considered to play an important role.

"No one knows what causes the disease, and there's no way to treat it," Snoeck said. "Using this technology, researchers will finally be able to create laboratory models of IPF, study the disease at the molecular level, and screen drugs for possible treatments or cures."

"In the longer term, we hope to use this technology to make an autologous lung graft," Snoeck said. "This would entail taking a lung from a donor; removing all the lung cells, leaving only the lung scaffold; and seeding the scaffold with new lung cells derived from the patient. In this way, rejection problems could be avoided."

The finding has been reported in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

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