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.

Human Stem Cells Converted into Functional Lung Cells


Scientists from the Columbia University Medical Center have succeeded in transforming human stem cells into functional lung and airway cells. This finding has significant potential for modeling lung disease, screening lung-specific drugs, and, hopefully, generating lung tissue for transplantation.

Study leader, Hans-Willem Snoeck, professor of medicine and affiliated with the Columbia Center for Translational Immunology and the Columbia Stem Cell Initiative, said, “Researchers have had relative success in turning human stem cells into heart cells, pancreatic beta cells, intestinal cells, liver cells, and nerve cells, raising all sorts of possibilities for regenerative medicine. Now, we are finally able to make lung and airway cells. This is important because lung transplants have a particularly poor prognosis. Although any clinical application is still many years away, we can begin thinking about making autologous lung transplants – that is, transplants that use a patient’s own skin cells to generate functional lung tissue.”

The research builds on Snoeck’s earlier discoveries in 2011 that a set of chemical factors could induce the differentiation of embryonic or induced pluripotent stem cells into “anterior foregut endoderm,” which is the embryo in the tissue from which the lungs form (Green MD, et al. Generation of anterior foregut endoderm from human embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells. Nat Biotechnol. 2011 Mar;29(3):267-72).

Human Embryological Development - one month

In his new study, Snoeck and his colleagues found new factors that can transform anterior foregut endoderm cells into lung and airway cells. In particular, Snoeck and his co-workers were able to establish the presence of “type 2 alveolar epithelial cells,” which secrete the lung surfactant that maintains the lung alveoli (those tiny sacs in the lung where all the oxygen exchange takes place).

lung alveolus

With these techniques, lung researchers hope to study diseases like idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), in which type 2 epithelial cells seem to divide and produce scarring in the lungs.

“No one knows what causes the disease, and there’s no way to treat it,” said Snoeck. “Using this technology, researchers will finally be able to create laboratory models of IPF, study the disease at the molecular level, and screen drugs for possible treatments or cures. In the longer term, we hope to use this technology to make an autologous lung graft. This would entail taking a lung from a donor, removing all the lung cells, leaving only the lung scaffold; and seeding the scaffold with new lung cells derived from the patient. In this way, rejection problems could be avoided.”

Snoeck is investigating this approach in collaboration with researchers in the Columbia University Department of Biomedical Engineering.