Using Stem Cells to Fight Lung Disease


By Kevin Ritchart

Everything is easier in 3D. That’s the tack being taken by researchers from the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA who have created three dimensional lung organoids from stem cells.

These lab-grown tissues can be used to study lung diseases like idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which is difficult to do using conventional methods. Typically, scientists are forced to rely on two dimensional cell cultures to study the effect of genetic mutations or drugs on lung cells. But the flat cell cultures used in that approach appear healthy rather than showing scarring from the disease.

“Scientists have really not been able to model lung scarring in a dish,” said Brigitte Gomperts, MD, who is a member of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center. “While we haven’t built a fully functional lung, we’ve been able to take lung cells and place them in the correct geometrical spacing and pattern to mimic a human lung.”

How It Works

Getting stem cells to mimic the makeup of lung tissue begins with coating tiny gel beads with lung-derived stem cells and letting them assemble into the shape of air sacs found in human lungs. This approach to growing 3D stem cells into organoids (organ buds grown in vitrothat contain realistic organ anatomy) for research began in 2010 and has been identified as one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of this decade, according to The Scientistmagazine.

“The technique is very simple,” said Dan Wilkinson, one of the authors of the research paper on this subject. “We can make thousands of reproducible pieces of tissue that resemble lung and contain patient-specific cells.” These patient-specific cells will help scientists hone in on the causes of diseases like idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and aid in developing more effective treatment options.

The Next Steps

At this point, researchers don’t know the cause of all cases of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. With the development of the new lung organoids, researchers will be able to study the biological causes of diseases and identify the best courses of treatment. This would involve collecting cells from the patient, turning them into stem cells, forming them into 3D organoids and putting those organoids through a battery of tests. Because it’s easy to create multiple organoids at once, researchers are able to test the effects of multiple drugs at the same time.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think this approach could be used to test for diseases in other organs? Why or why not?
  • Stem Cell
  • Organoid