Researchers Grow Fully Functional Human Intestinal Tissue in Laboratory

A team of researchers was able to better study a rare disorder called Hirschsprung’s disease by using pluripotent stem cells. For the first time, scientists used stem cells to grow functioning human intestinal tissue. The findings have the potential to improve implant procedures. The details are in a paper that was just published in the journal Nature Medicine.

The intestines are prone to a number of disorders and diseases. Intestinal distress is also a common side effect of countless drugs and other medical treatments. Yet it can be difficult to study preventatives and treatments for intestinal issues. Part of the problem is that intestines can’t be easily kept alive to study in the laboratory. There is currently no method for transplanting new intestinal tissue into a patient. The ability to transplant healthy intestinal tissue could help patients suffering from Hirschsprung’s disease and related disorders.

Researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center utilized multiple laboratories and resources to develop a method of generating human intestinal tissue. In 2010, a similar study resulted in the growth of intestinal tissue from stem cells but the derived tissue lacked an enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system helps control the gastrointestinal system and processes nutrients while removing waste. This time, the researchers not only grew pluripotent stem cells destined to become intestinal cells; they also generated enteric nerve precursor cells and allowed them to develop with the other stem cells. This allowed the scientists to grow fully functional intestinal tissue.

The research team was successful in generating functional intestinal tissue from pluripotent stem cells, thanks to a new technique that utilizes enteric nerve precursor cells. The authors caution that actual human transplants are still far off and more testing is required. The team hopes that their results will help scientists develop treatments for disorders such as Hirschsprung’s disease.


Workman et al. Engineered human pluripotent-stem-cell-derived intestinal tissues with a functional enteric nervous system. Nature Medicine (2016).

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