Lung regeneration using stem cells

Researchers report breakthrough in human lung regeneration

Summary: A team of scientists at Tongji University just announced a breakthrough in regenerating human lungs using stem cells, improving lung function in patients. [This article first appeared on the website LongevityFacts. Author: Brady Hartman. ]

A team of researchers from Tongji University in China announced what they say is a breakthrough in treating lung diseases by regenerating tissue using stem cell transplantation.

In a pilot clinical trial, the treatment proved effective at repairing the lung tissue of two patients suffering from lung diseases, who showed improvements in both symptoms and on CT scans, say the researchers. Zuo Wei is a Tongji University professor who led the research team and says,

“Chronic lung diseases could be conquered within 5 years,”

How It Works

The novel therapy involves taking stem cells from the patients and growing them many times before transplanting them back into the patients’ lungs, a technique known as autologous stem cell transplant. For patients suffering from chronic respiratory diseases, lung stem cell transplantation could be a godsend. The researchers published their findings in the peer-reviewed open access journal Protein & Cell.

Perfecting the Technique on Mice

Professor Zuo developed the stem cell transplant technique on mice, years before the clinical trial. Transplanting human cells into the rodents, the researcher successfully regenerated human bronchial and alveolar structures in the lungs of the mice.  The team observed that new human alveoli replaced the fibrotic area in the injured lungs of the rodents after receiving stem cell transplantation. Moreover, tests showed that the lung function of the rodents had significantly recovered.

Human Trial

The success of the mice experiments prompted a small human trial which began in April 2016 at Southwest Hospital, a nationally-approved stem cell clinical research institute. The trial was approved by the Chinese Food and Drug Administration and the National Health and Family Planning Commission of China.

The small trial consisted of only two patients with a lung disease known as bronchiectasis. The team extracted dozens of stem cells from the patient’s lungs and then expanded them millions of times before transplanting them back into the patients. The transplants developed into new lung structures, including alveoli and bronchi, repairing injured lung tissue.

The team reported that the breathing of the patients improved as did their ability to walk distances. CT scans also showed improvement. The patients said their symptoms, including coughing and asthma, had been relieved. As the authors write,

“Generally the bronchiectasis patients without medical intervention will deteriorate over time, thus the recovery of lung function and structure after cell therapy suggested the efficacy of this strategy”

Stem Cell Transplants

Scientists have successfully used autologous stem cell transplants to regenerate human skin, corneal epithelium, and hematopoietic cells. Some of these have become routine therapies. However, regeneration of the large organs, such as the lung, remains a challenge to modern medicine.

Scientists propose many ways to regrow large organs such as the liver and heart. in 2013, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh grew a small beating heart from human stem cells. A startup is capitalizing on the technique and proposes developing bioprinted beating hearts using stem cells from a patient’s own body.

While large organs remain a challenge, researchers have created many types of organ tissues, including kidney, liver, and pancreatic tissue. For example, researchers in the UK recently used stem cells to create functioning mini-kidneys that create urine. In another example, scientists at a company called ViaCyte have lab-grown a kind of pancreas-in-a-box using stem cells. While not a fully-grown pancreas, it contains pancreatic beta-cells that produce insulin.

Lung diseases are the third-leading cause of death worldwide. Most of the lethal lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) and bronchiectasis are accompanied by irreversible and progressive damage to the lung tissues. A treatment that reverses these conditions, even by a small amount, would be a blessing to patients.

Expanding the Trial

Buoyed by the success of the pilot trial, the team is currently carrying out a multi-center, placebo-controlled study in humans. Professor Xiaotian Dai, the doctor supervising the clinical trial, said

“Stem cell transplantation is quite effective and we will continue the study by expanding the cohort size, including the control group and carrying out a long-term continuous observation.”

Bottom Line

The results should be taken with a large grain of salt because it was a small trial and published in an open access journal. However, Protein & Cell is both peer-reviewed and published by Springer, one of the more reputable names in the open access world. Moreover, the journal is sponsored by reputable Chinese academic organizations, allowing authors to publish free of charge. I guess that the authors chose to publish in an open-access journal due to it being popular with Chinese academics and free.

That having been said, the study results, while small, are promising but need to be confirmed in a larger trial.

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Cover photo credit: Getty Images.

“Researchers report first lung stem cell transplantation clinical trial.” Springer. February 9, 2018. Link to the press release in MedicalXpress.

Ma, Q., Ma, Y., Dai, X. et al. “Regeneration of functional alveoli by adult human SOX9+ airway basal cell transplantation.” Protein & Cell (2018). Springer. DOI: 10.1007/s13238-018-0506-y. Link to article in Springer.


Diagnosis, Treatment, and Advice:  This article is intended for informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for qualified, professional medical advice.  The information and opinions provided in this article should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Consult a qualified and licensed physician for the diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Experimental stem cell therapies carry a much higher risk than FDA-approved ones. Dial 9-1-1, or an equivalent emergency hotline number, for all medical emergencies. As well, consult a licensed, qualified physician before changing your diet, supplement or exercise programs.
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