Scientists Grow Intestinal Tissues With Functional Nerves In The Lab

Researchers are using the tissue, synthesized with human pluripotent stem cells and implanted into mice, to study a rare form of Hirschprung’s disease.

Nov 23, 2016
Joshua A. Krisch

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, MARVIN101Researchers at Cincinnati Children's Hospital have succeeded in engineering intestinal tissue with functional nerves in a laboratory setting. Their method, described in a study published this week (November 21) in Nature Medicine, brings regenerative medicine one step closer to making practical use of human pluripotent stem cells for transplants and, nearer term, modeling and studying intestinal disorders.

“One day this technology will allow us to grow a section of healthy intestine for transplant into a patient,” said coauthor Michael Helmrath of Cincinnati Children's, in a press release. “But the ability to use it now to test and ask countless new questions will help human health to the greatest extent.”

Helmrath and colleagues placed human pluripotent stem cells in a biochemical bath to form intestinal tissue, and then engineered a nervous system from embryonic nerve cells in a separate petri dish. After several attempts, the team succeeded at incorporating its primitive nervous system into the intestinal tissue, even inducing the enteric nerve precursor cells and intestinal cells to grow in concert. The researchers then transplanted the engineered intestines and nerves into mice where, they reported, the sample grew normally, even demonstrating peristalsis.

Helmrath’s team then used the engineered intestine to study Hirschprung’s disease, a condition in which the rectum and colon fail to develop a normal local nervous system. The researchers found an association with the disease in the gene PHOX2B; experimentally mutating it in the engineered intestine, the team observed damage to the synthetic tissue’s nervous system.