Scientists created human gut tissue containing a functional nervous system in the laboratory for the first time.
According to the authors of the study, “Engineered human pluripotent-stem-cell-derived intestinal tissues with a functional enteric nervous system,” which was published in the leading scientific journal Nature Medicine, this research could help treat people with conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). However, they warned: “The complexity of the [gut] tissue will demand much more work before it reaches prime time in patients.”
The team of researchers, led by James Wells, PhD, of the Division of Developmental Biology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio, used a tissue engineering approach with embryonic stem (ES) cells and another type of stem cells called induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS) derived from either skin or white blood cells, to generate the human gut tissue.
They then combined this basic gut tissue, called human intestinal organoids (HIOs), with nerve cells generated from IPS cells. When they implanted the nerve cell-containing HIOs into mice, the researchers saw they were able to generate waves of propagating contraction, just like in a normal gut tissue.
The researchers also found that the body of the animals supplied blood and immune cells to the transplanted tissue, suggesting the same could happen if the tissue was to be transplanted into humans.
“I feel this is one of the most complex tissues to have been engineered,” Wells said in a in an article that was published in the New Scientist. “It has the inner lining that does all the absorption of nutrients and secretion of digestive juices, fully functional muscles that propel the food through the gut, and nerves that control the pulsed muscle movement.”
Dr. Harald Ott, MD, a thoracic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, was not involved in the study but offered this comment: “I’m convinced this is just the beginning, as we move from controlling the fate of single cells to forming functional structures.”
According to Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA), IBD affects about 1.6 million people in the U.S. Although the condition can be treated, no cure is available yet.