Researchers at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA continue to make findings and developments that keep them at the forefront of regenerative medicine research and progress. In particular, Dr. Brigitte Gomperts, an associate professor of pediatric hematology/oncology, recently worked with a team to study lung-derived stem cells when they were placed to coat tiny gel beads. Gomperts and her team discovered that the stem cells self-assemble into the shapes of the air sacs found in human lungs, thus creating three-dimensional lung “organoids.”
Gomperts’ findings have vital implications. “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,” she explained. This will allow doctors and researchers to study lung diseases, like idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, that have long been difficult to understand.
Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis and the Role of Stem Cells
Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is a serious and chronic condition caused by the scarring and thickening of the lungs. It most commonly impacts those above the age of 50, but doctors have never understood the root causes. IPF is easily identified by dry cough, chest pain, difficulty breathing, and shortness of breath. Since this condition robs vital organs and the brain of oxygen, most people only live three to five years after diagnosis.
Considering the severity of IPF, doctors have always been anxious to better understand the disease, and UCLA’s new laboratory-produced lung organoids could hold the answers. Before now, researchers had to rely upon two-dimensional cell cultures that couldn’t accurately reflect the effect of genetic mutations or drugs on lung cells. Gomperts explains, “Scientists have really not been able to model lung scarring in a dish,” which has prevented them from designing potential treatments.
Gomperts and her team were able to design their 3-D lung organoids by taking stem cells from adult lungs and using them to coat sticky hydrogel beads. They separated the beads into small wells, and inside each well the lung cells grew around the beads. This helped them link and form an evenly distributed 3-D pattern. The researchers even compared the lab-grown lung tissue to sections of real human lung to ensure the comparison was genuine.
Learning How to Save Lives
Once the 3-D lung tissue was created, Gomperts and her team added molecular factors to the cultures to instigate scarring identical to the scars found in patients diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. This step alone was a major achievement since it was never before possible with two-dimensional cultures.
Now that researchers possess lung organoids made from adult lung stem cells, as well as the scarring to mimic IPF, they can study the biological foundations of specific lung diseases and test the efficacy of future treatments.
This type of problem solving can potentially even go a step further. Theoretically, doctors can take an individual’s lung stem cells and form them into 3-D tissue, then screen the effect of many different drugs in order to identify the best customized solution for that specific patient. As Gomperts summarizes, “This is the basis for precision medicine and personalized treatments.”