Cambridge Researchers Create Mini-Lungs For CF Research

Patrícia Silva, PhD avatar

by Patrícia Silva, PhD |

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Branching mini-lung. Credit: Nick Hannan, University of Cambridge

Branching mini-lung. Credit: Nick Hannan, University of Cambridge

The creation of a pair of mini-lungs was successfully completed by a group of investigators at the University of Cambridge and may revolutionize the treatment of conditions that affect the pulmonary system. The mini-lungs were created as part of a research project aimed at developing new therapeutic options for patients with cystic fibrosis (CF) and are expected to be used to test investigational drugs and therapies for the disease.

Researchers from the Wellcome Trust-Medical Research Council Cambridge Stem Cell Institute developed the mini-lungs from stem cells provided by CF patients, and the experimental organs work similarly to real ones. Because of this, the team believes that they will be useful in research and may help accelerate the search for a cure for the disabling genetic disease.

“In a sense, what we’ve created are ‘mini-lungs,” explained the leader of the study, Nick Hannan, in a press release from the university. “While they only represent the distal part of lung tissue, they are grown from human cells and so can be more reliable than using traditional animal models, such as mice. We can use them to learn more about key aspects of serious diseases — in our case, cystic fibrosis.”

The findings were recently published in the Stem Cell and Development journal in an article entitled “Generation of Distal Airway Epithelium from Multipotent Human Foregut Stem Cells.” The researchers used cells from the patients’ skin and reprogrammed them to become pluripotent and able to be used in diverse types of human cells.

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The scientists developed the cells into embryonic lung cells and were able to originate the part of the lungs most commonly affected by CF, the distal airways. The mini-lungs were tested with a fluorescent dye sensitive to chloride, a process where chloride would ideally pass through the distal airways unperturbed in lungs without the disease, but not in lungs affected by CF. During the experiment, the mini-lungs functioned as planned like CF affected lungs.

“We’re confident this process could be scaled up to enable us to screen tens of thousands of compounds and develop mini-lungs with other diseases such as lung cancer and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. This is far more practical, should provide more reliable data and is also more ethical than using large numbers of mice for such research,” added Hannan.

The research team believes that the discovery may help improve the treatment of the disease that causes layers of thick mucus in the lungs, as well as difficulties in breathing and increased risk of suffering respiratory infections.