Cure diseases with organs grown in the laboratory
Organs and tissues grown in the lab may in the future be able to cure people with organ failure. Micha Drukker, professor of stem cells, developmental biology and technology for innovative drug research, is convinced that the use of stem cells will make this possible. He will deliver his inaugural lesson on November 18.
At present, doctors generally treat the symptoms of tissue damage. However, in order to cure the disease itself, we must take a function that has been lost and recreate it. Diabetics taking insulin are a good example. Insulin makes the symptoms go away, but not the diabetes itself. “To cure a disease, we have to fix what went wrong,” says Drukker. “In the future, if your liver has stopped working, if part of your brain is damaged, or if your heart is not working properly, we can replace those defective or missing body parts.” For diabetes, we will develop new pancreatic islets (pancreatic cells that are damaged in diabetic patients, editor’s note).’
New organs and tissues can be made from the patient’s own cells.
These new organs and tissues can be made from the patient’s own cells. From these cells, stem cells can be made using cell reprogramming technology. These are cells that can develop into different cell types and eventually into tissues and organs. Simply put, in the lab, stem cells are given instructions to make a specific cell. According to Drukker, the basis of the technology is already available to make tissues and organs from the body’s own cells. “We need to connect existing technologies and bridge the gaps to bring all parties together. It will take a lot of money, time and research. Our research focuses on improving stem cell differentiation into clinically useful cell types and computational analysis of cell safety.
The idea is not to grow a complete heart or lung in the lab. According to Drukker, it would be very difficult. “The fundamental problem is to make things big enough. In a normal situation, cells grow naturally in the human body, where they receive the oxygen and nutrients necessary for their development. So far, no solution has been found to manufacture whole organs in a laboratory environment. However, for a specific disease, enormous progress is possible by culturing cells or clumps of cells, which can then be injected or placed into the body in an operation. After that, the body will do the rest by absorbing the cells. Thus, part of the heart, nervous system or bone marrow can be “repaired”. And diabetic patients can receive new pancreatic islets. “These are tiny and don’t necessarily need to be structured to treat diabetes. We can earn billions and inject them.
“A lot of human suffering will disappear thanks to this technology, I have no doubt.”
Drukker expects that within the next five years, stem cell therapy will show promise in curing diabetic patients. He also hopes for treatments for other illnesses. “I really hope that within a few years we can slow down the brutal symptoms of ALS and start treating degeneration and nerve damage.” He is very optimistic about these new technological advances. “A lot of human suffering will disappear thanks to this technology, I have no doubt.”
Examples of stem cell therapies
Bone marrow transplantation is an example of stem cell therapy used since the 1960s to cure certain cancers, such as leukemia. Once implanted, the new cells produce a new immune system, a coagulation system and red blood cells that carry oxygen.
A more recent success in stem cell therapy has improved the vision of people with a particular form of blindness. They were implanted with a new layer of retinal pigment epithelial cells (cells important for retinal function).
Text: Dagmar Aarts