British scientists have built a complete and functional organ from transplanted laboratory-created cells in a living animal for the very first time. The researchers have created a thymus — an organ next to the heart that produces immune cells known as T cells that are vital for guarding against disease.
Although so far only tested on mice, the technique could be used to provide replacement organs for people with weakened immune systems and eventually lead on the production of more complex organs for transplant. The technique could be used in humans in as little as ten years.
Scientists created a working thymus with connective tissue cells from a mouse embryo which were converted into a completely different cell strain by flipping a genetic “switch” in their DNA. The resulting cells grew spontaneously into the whole organ when injected into the mouse with other similar cells.
Professor Clare Blackburn, from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, who led the team of scientists, said: “The ability to grow replacement organs from cells in the lab is one of the ‘holy grails’ in regenerative medicine. But the size and complexity of lab-grown organs has so far been limited.
By directly reprogramming cells we’ve managed to produce an artificial cell type that, when transplanted, can form a fully organised and functional organ. This is an important first step towards the goal of generating a clinically useful artificial thymus in the lab.”
The new research, published in the journal Nature Cell Biology, raises the possibility of creating a whole new functioning thymus using cells manufactured in the laboratory.
While fragments of organs, including hearts, livers and even brains, have been grown from stem cells, no one before has succeeded in producing a fully intact organ from cells created outside the body.