If you're into science news (of course you are! You're here, aren't you?) it's likely you'll hear the name Hiromitsu Nakauchi, MD, PhD, this morning. You may even already know what I'm about to tell you -- that the Stanford stem cell researcher and his colleagues at the University of Tokyo successfully grew a functional pancreas made of mouse cells inside a rat. They were then able to reverse diabetes by transplanting the mouse islet cells from the rat into mice with the condition.
The researchers reported their results today in Nature.
Why should you care? Well, if you or anyone you know needs an organ transplant, this work suggests in principle that it may one day be possible to generate human organs in large animals such as pigs or sheep. Furthermore, it might be possible to make an organ that is genetically matched to the future recipient, eliminating the need for a lifetime of immunosuppressive drugs to prevent rejection.
I described the research in a release:
To conduct the work, the researchers implanted mouse pluripotent stem cells, which can become any cell in the body, into early rat embryos. The rats had been genetically engineered to be unable to develop their own pancreas and were thus forced to rely on the mouse cells for the development of the organ.
Once the rats were born and grown, the researchers transplanted the insulin-producing cells, which cluster together in groups called islets, from the rat-grown pancreases into mice genetically matched to the stem cells that formed the pancreas. These mice had been given a drug to cause them to develop diabetes.
'We found that the diabetic mice were able to normalize their blood glucose levels for over a year after the transplantation of as few as 100 of these islets,' said [Nakauchi]. 'Furthermore, the recipient animals only needed treatment with immunosuppressive drugs for five days after transplantation, rather than the ongoing immunosuppression that would be needed for unmatched organs.'
About 119,000 people in the United States are awaiting organ transplants. Although much, much more research needs to be done, today's news marks an exciting advance in the race to find potential ways to alleviate organ shortages and relieve recipients from the need for long-term immune suppression.
Previously: "It's not just science fiction anymore": Childx speakers talk stem cell and gene therapy, A stem cell "kill switch" may make therapies safer, say Stanford researchers and Stanford researchers protest NIH funding restrictions
Photo courtesy of Nakauchi laboratory