Human lungs grown in the lab for the first time

Scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) have grown lungs in the laboratory for the first time. By taking parts of damaged lungs from children, they have been able to nurture a set of lungs to the point of being able to react to air.

I found this story through New York Daily News and was then able to get the original release from UTMB. This news item is of particular significance because it brings about two scientific breakthroughs.

Firstly, an organ as complex as a lung has not been artificially created in a lab environment in the past.  There is a bucketful of reasons why artificial organ growth is challenging but these researchers have been able to break down some of those barriers.

Secondly, their methods were very interesting. Taking an ‘abnormal’ approach allowed them to create something relatively ‘normal’. By using two lungs taken from two separate children who died, the researchers created a scaffold from one lung to use as a ‘soft-tissue backbone’ that could have the damaged tissue from the second child’s lung grafted on to it.

Submerging the grafted lung into a nutritional solution for one month to allow the cells to repair, spread, grow, and become somewhat functional. After this, the scientists took out the lungs and pumped them full of air, to which a lung responded by receiving the air, seen when the tiny air sacs- the alveoli-  expanded.

Reconstructed lungs

The lungs after being stripped of material, ready to be used as a scaffold (left). The lungs after being submerged 30 days (right).

While this work can be considered a revolution in artificial organ creation, any resulting impact to those who need an organ transplant is still a while away. It is a step forward nonetheless.

“My students will be doing the work when I’m old and retired and can’t hold a pipette anymore,” says Professor Joan Nichols, who headed the team responsible for the experiment. More complex lungs will need to be grown before any sort of animal trials can begin, not forgetting an exhaustive list of clinical trials in humans.

Perhaps with collaboration with stem cell researchers, this kind of work can have a prosperous outcome for all. Finding some way to utilise stem cells’ ability to adapt to very specific purposes could improve artificial organ growth times and the overall effectiveness of the organ in question.

“In terms of different cell types, the lung is probably the most complex of all organs — the cells near the entrance are very different from those deep in the lung,” said Dr. Joaquin Cortiella who leads the UTMB group.

“If we can make a good lung for people, we can also make a good model for injury.”

The brilliance of this news should not be shadowed by the long road ahead. While the lung is one of the most complex organs in terms of cell complexity and diversity, these sort of promising results are good news for those on the always over-encumbered transplant lists.

[Cover Image via Creative Commons]

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