New Way to Improve Stem Cell Production May Improve IPF Treatment

North Carolina State University researcher have tested a faster, cheaper way to harvest and grow lung stem cells that have been extracted from patients’ own bodies. That makes such cells a perfect match for lung patients, according to a small proof-of-concept trial.

Ke Cheng, an associate professor of regenerative medicine at NC State, and his team tested this method with, a view toward eventually treating people with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, or IPF, a disease that causes inflammation in lung tissue that over time becomes thick and stiff. This scarring of tissue negatively affects lung function over time.

“In current stem cell harvesting, just the process of sorting the stem cells can damage them, wasting not only the cells, but also time and money,” said Cheng. “We wanted to see if we could take healthy stem cells from an organ while they were still in a supportive environment, recreate and enhance that environment outside the body to encourage stem cell reproduction, then reintroduce those cells into a damaged organ to treat disease.”

Cheng and others placed healthy, human adult lung stem cells in a multicellular spheroid, a three-dimensional structure with stem cells in the middle surrounded by layers of support cells. Spheroids are typically used in the laboratory to culture cancer or embryonic cells.

They then used mice with IPF and injected cultured human stem cells into the animals. These injected stem cells produced decreases in inflammation and fibrosis, which Cheng said matched the condition of lungs in the study’s control group that did not have IPF.

Cheng hopes that stem cells isolated from biopsies in human patients can be used to grow and harvest additional cells. Such a procedure should be able to decrease the number of invasive procedures necessary for treatment.

“Picture the lung as a garden and the stem cells as seeds,” Cheng said. “In an IPF environment, with inflammation, the soil is bad, but the seeds are still there. We take the seeds out and give them a protected place to grow. Then when we put them back into the lung, they can grow into mature lung cells to replace the damaged lung tissues in IPF. They can also wake the other seeds up, telling them to help fight the inflammation and ‘improving’ the soil.”

The study was published in the journal STEM CELLS Translational Medicine.