Growing Human Esophagus Tissue from Human Cells

Tracy Grikscheit of the Saban Research Institute of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and her colleagues have successfully grown a tissue engineered esophagus on a relatively simple biodegradable scaffold after seeding it with the appropriate stem and progenitor cells.

Progenitor cells have the ability to differentiate into specific cell types and can migrate to a particular target tissue. Their differentiation potential depends on the parent cell type from which they descended and their “niche” or local surroundings. The scaffold upon which these cells were seeded is composed of a simple polymer, but interestingly, several different combinations of cell types were able to generate a replacement organ that worked well when transplanted into laboratory mice.

“We found that multiple combinations of cell populations allowed subsequent formation of engineered tissue. Different progressive cells can find the right “partner” cell in order to grow into specific esophageal cell types; such as epithelium, muscle or nerve cells, and without the need for exogenous growth factors. This means that successful tissue engineering of the esophagus is simpler than we previously thought,” said Grikscheit.

Videos published the paper show a network of muscle cells properly wired with nerves that properly self-organizes whose muscles spontaneously contract.  Such structures are called an esophageal organoid unit (EOU) in culture. Spontaneous contraction is observed within these EOUs.

This study could be the impetus for clinical procedures that can treat children born with portions of their esophagus missing. Since the esophagus carries liquids and food to the stomach from the mouth, it is a vitally important part of the body.

This protocol, could also be applied to patients who have suffered from esophageal cancer and had to have their esophagus removed. Esophageal cancer is one of the fastest growing types of cancer in the United States to date. Alternatively, people who have accidentally swallowed caustic liquids may also benefit from this type of esophageal repair.

This simple scaffold made of a polyglycolic acid/poly-L-lactic acid and coated with the protein collagen is inexpensive and versatile and completely sufficient for the growth of tissue-engineered esophagi from human cells, according to this study. When established in culture, this system can also serve as a model system to study the cell dynamics and physiology of the esophagus.

A deeper understanding of how esophageal cells behave in response to injury and how various donor cells could potentially expand the pool of potential donor cells for engineered tissue.

Even though this technique has only been tested in animals to date, fine-tuning of this technique might very well ready it for clinical trials in the future.


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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).