Lab-grown oesophagus breakthrough offers new hope to thousands of children

18 Oct 2018

The world’s first functional oesophagus engineered from stem cells. Image: University College London

Researchers have successfully created the world’s first artificial oesophagus, potentially changing thousands of children’s lives.

In the UK alone, it is estimated that one in every 3,000 babies is born with a life-changing defect of the gut, making their life considerably more difficult as they require alternative ways to access the nutrients they need to survive.

However, a major breakthrough achieved by a team from University College London and carried out at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) could help solve this problem in the near future using the world’s first artificially engineered oesophagus grown from stem cells.

Publishing its findings in Nature Communications, the team revealed it had used a rat oesophagus ‘scaffold’ and the human gut cells to grow engineered oesophagus tubes. These were then implanted into mice and, within a week, the engineered tissue developed its own blood supply, which is important for a healthy gut that can squeeze down food.

‘Major step forward for regenerative medicine’

“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,” said Prof Paulo De Coppi, co-lead author of the research.

“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.”

He added: “We’re really excited about these promising preclinical findings. However, lots more research lies ahead before we can safely and effectively translate this approach to humans.”

Growing the tubes was a major challenge in itself, as naturally they have several different layers of cells, requiring a multi-step approach to engineer a new one from scratch.

Now in preclinical stage, the researchers hope their breakthrough will lead to a new standard of care for patients with complex physical conditions. This is especially important when such conditions largely affect children, and donated organs are already incredibly rare.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic