Human colon stem cells have been identified and grown in a lab-plate for the first time

Human colon stem cells have been identified and grown in a lab-plate for the first time. This achievement, made by researchers of the Colorectal Cancer Lab at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona, which was published in Nature Medicine, is a crucial advance towards regenerative medicine.

Colonic stem cells regenerate the inner layer of the large intestine throughout out lives on a weekly basis. Evidence of the existence of these cells existed for decades, but culturing them was difficult. Now scientists as the ICREA, led by Professor Eduard Batlle discovered the precise localization of the stem cells in the human colon and designed a method to isolate and expand these stem cells in culture (propagating them in laboratory plates). Growing cells outside the body generally requires providing the cells with the right mix of nutrients, hormones, and growth factors, plus the right environment in a lab dish. Batlle and colleagues tried many concoctions, until they final hit upon the right one. They established the conditions to maintain living human colon stem cells (CoSCs) outside the human body and in culture: This is the first time that it has been possible to grow single CoSCs in lab-plates and to derive human intestinal stem cell lines in defined conditions in a laboratory setting.

After more than ten years of work, a close collaboration between Batlle’s team and the group led by Hans Clevers at the Hubretcht Institute and University Medical Center Utrecht in The Netherlands, and María A. Blasco at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre in Madrid (Spain) made this momentous find possible. Scientists have been trying to grow intestinal tissue in the laboratory for many years. Because the vast majority of cells in this tissue are fully differentiated, they do not grow when placed in a culture dish. This study found a way to identify and select individual CoSCs and to grow them while maintaining their undifferentiated and proliferative state under laboratory conditions. Now researchers have a defined ‘recipe’ for isolating CoSCs and deriving stable CoSCs lines that have the ability to grow will in an undifferentiated state for months. Scientists were able to maintain CoSCs for up to 5 months, but they can also be differentiated as needed.

This could potentially produce a huge breakthrough in regenerative medicine. Now that the proper guidelines for growing and maintaining colon stem cells in the lab are known, there is an ideal platform that could help the scientific community determine the molecular bases of gastrointestinal cell proliferation and differentiation. Alterations in the properties of CoSCs are responsible for gastrointestinal diseases like colorectal cancer or Crohn’s disease (an autoimmune and inflammatory disorder of the GI tract). This discovery potentially opens new ways to start exploring this exciting field.

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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).