Scientists have now found a practical way to turn human stem cells into working pituitary gland tissue. The pituitary gland is responsible for releasing important hormones that control everything from growth to reproductive functions. Disorders of the pituitary gland are generally serious; a disease called hypopituitarism causes dwarfism, premature aging, and a host of other issues. Sufferers must take expensive medications and use hormone replacement therapy. Now, rats with the disease have been permanently cured using this new stem cell technique.
Recently, scientists had come up with a way to generate pituitary gland cells from human stem cells. They used special 3D cultures that mimicked the natural environment and events that unfold during normal pituitary gland development. This is a complicated, costly process and it wasn’t practical enough to be a useful treatment for pituitary gland disorders. This prompted researchers to look for a simpler technique. A publication in Stem Cell Reports details their approach.
Rather than rely on developing a complex organoid culture to exactly mimic normal development conditions, scientists used a simple culture and a few well-known chemical signals. They used defined signals already known to play a role in pituitary cell development. Not only did the cells develop but they produced different types of pituitary cells based on the protein signals. These various versions of pituitary cells also released differing amounts of hormones. This is especially useful because some patients with pituitary gland disorders may need personalized amounts of hormone release.
In order to test the performance of these newly generated cells, scientists transplanted them into rats. The rats had first had their pituitary glands surgically removed. The cells worked and produced the correct hormones, including the proper signals to generate hormonal responses from the kidneys.
This research is a great first step to treating hypopituitarism. The authors now plan to try to improve the process and create pure strains of different versions of pituitary cells. This would allow treatment to be personalized for individual patients with various types of hypopituitarism.
Bastian Zimmer et al. Derivation of Diverse Hormone-Releasing Pituitary Cells from Human Pluripotent Stem Cells. Stem Cell Reports, 2016.