Thursday, 18 April 2013

Wisconsin researchers explore methods to grow organs from stem cells

The Daily Cardinal reported yesterday that researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison are exploring new methods to grow tissues, and perhaps one day organs, in the lab using stem cells.

Reportedly, Randy Ashton, assistant professor at the Wisconsin University and one of the team's key researchers, said that he and his team have successfully produced various types of neurons, which they characterise as "one-dimensional tissues". Now, their next goal is to produce 2D tissues of the central nervous system (CNS) and nerve tubes, for instance a spinal cord slice, within the next five years.

Ashton has been working for years on different factors and how they can be used to guide the stem cell differentiation process. Some of the factors he's been working on are called "cellular communication molecules" that can be found in all our organs. They are named this way because they "communicate" with our stem cells, sending them biological signals that induce them into becoming specialised cells. If Ashton manages to understand and replicate these signals he will be able to turn stem cells into any tissue or organ cell he desires.

However, this will be just a first step in growing complex tissues or organs he says. Because of their 3D nature, researchers must also find a way to produce cells "in a proper spatial orientation" in order to get a fully functional tissue/organ.

In 2008, Paolo Macchiarini became the first man to grow and transplant an organ using stem cells

For this reason, Ashton's team is also trying to build artificial environments using 3D biological scaffolds.

"Engineering the scaffold for cells’ growth is like building a particular house. When you build a house how do you decorate the house so that as the tissue grows into the house, it gets exposed to the right type of cues at the right time frame to generate a heart or a liver?” said Ashton.

For now, Ashton's team focuses on growing tissues and organs of the brain, CNS and spinal cord. Hopefully, their research will help create new platforms for modelling many different diseases, like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

“If I could create a spinal cord and I want to look at a disease like ALS that affects the spinal cord tissue, then I could essentially get the pluripotent stem cell from patients that have ALS, make my spinal cord tissue from that, and then see what goes wrong in the diseases,” said Ashton.

Although other scientists have already managed to grow simple organs, growing complex ones like a heart is not a simple task. Nevertheless, Ashton is optimistic, saying that we will be able "grow a heart, a liver or even a portion of the brain" within the next 20 years.


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