Oct. 18 (UPI) -- Researchers for the first time have grown a functional esophagus from stem cells and transplanted the food pipe successfully in mice.
This engineering process could pave the way to the creation of lab-grown food pipes for children with congenital and acquired gut conditions, according to researchers at the University of College London's Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health.
The development could help reduce the need for donated organs, which are often in short supply -- especially for pediatric patients -- and significantly lowers the risk of a donor organ being rejected by the patient's body.
A paper on the work, conducted by researchers at UCL, as well as the Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Francis Crick Institute, was published this week in the journal Nature Communications.
"This is a major step forward for regenerative medicine, bringing us ever closer to treatment that goes beyond repairing damaged tissue and offers the possibility of rejection-free organs and tissues for transplant," Dr. Paulo De Coppi, who leads stem cells and regenerative medicine research at ICH and co-lead on the new research, said in a press release. "At GOSH we see a large number of referrals for some of the most complex and rare defects of the gut and though the outlook for children is good, the condition and treatments have long-term implications."
The esophagus is a tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. Esophageal atresia is a birth defect in which part of the esophagus does not develop properly, so infants are unable to pass food from the mouth to the stomach and may have difficulty breathing.
Esophageal atresia affects about 1 in 4,300 pregnancies in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Researchers used a rat esophagus "scaffold" and human gut cells to grow engineered tubes of esophagus. Within a week of being implanted into mice, the engineered tissue developed its own blood supply, which is important to squeeze down food.
"This is the first time that such a complicated organ has been grown in the lab," said Dr. Paola Bonfanti, a research associate at ICH and co-leader of the study.
She said they had to use multi-step approach to develop a piece of esophagus that resembles and works the same as a normal, human one.
"Not only is the gut tube shaped, but as it also consists of several different layers of cells," he said. "It's truly a promising step forward for children and even adults with esophageal conditions."
De Coppi added that "we're really excited about these promising preclinical findings," but that much more research is necessary before this method can be tested in humans.