Tiny mouse-steps on the path to new organs

Cells that began their existence in a mouse embryo were removed by scientists at Edinburgh University’s Centre for Regenerative Medicine, “reprogrammed” as another type of cell and transplanted into another mouse, where they developed into a functioning organ.

This is the first time that researchers have managed to make an entire living and working organ from cells that were reprogrammed outside of the body. Their research was published in the journal Nature Cell Biology this week.

They were originally fibroblast cells, which are an intrinsic part of making structural animal tissue, and the scientists turned them into thymus cells. The thymus is an organ in the immune system. In humans, it is in front of the heart and is where our infection-fighting T cells are made. If the thymus is not working properly, the body is susceptible to disease and infection.

When the researchers mixed the reprogrammed thymus cells with normal thymus cells and inserted them into a mouse, they grew into a new thymus.

“The new organ had the same structure, complexity and function as a healthy adult thymus,” the researchers said in a release. “Doctors have already shown that patients with thymus disorders can be treated with infusions of extra immune cells or transplantation of a thymus organ soon after birth. The problem is that both are limited by a lack of donors and problems matching tissue to the recipient.”

If scientists are able to safely reprogramme cells that can develop into organs, it holds great promise for modern medicine and possibly an end to organ donation.

But Dr Rob Buckle, the head of regenerative medicine at the centre, cautions: “This is an exciting study but much more work will be needed before this process can be reproduced in a safe and tightly controlled way suitable for use in humans.”

We’re getting closer to home-grown organs but not quite there yet. – Sarah Wild

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