Human stem cells converted to functional lung cells

Scientists have successfully transformed human stem cells into functional lung and airway cells.

This break-through, published in the journal, Nature Biotechnology, could significantly advance the modelling of lung disease, drug testing, studying lung development, and generating lung tissue for transplantation.

Study leader Hans-Willem Snoeck said, “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.”

The scientists found new factors that can complete the transformation of human embryonic stem (ES) cells or human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells into functional lung epithelial cells, the cells that cover the lung surface. The resultant cells showed potential characteristics of at least six types of lung and airway epithelial cells. Most significantly, markers of type 2 alveolar epithelial cells were found. These cells produce surfactant, a substance critical to maintain the lung alveoli, where gas exchange takes place; they also participate in repair of the lung after injury and damage.

The research has implications for the study of a number of lung diseases, including idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). “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,” says Dr. Snoeck.

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