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Gut Building

Researchers develop way to grow and control maturation of intestinal stem cells, findings pave new ways to treat gastrointestinal disorders

By MARJORIE MONTEMAYOR-QUELLENBERG
December 9, 2013

Culture of intestinal stem cells. Image courtesy of Karp LabFor those living with gastrointestinal disorders, such as ulcers or Crohn’s disease, treatment often means quelling uncomfortable symptoms through medications or dietary changes. But what if one day treatment meant doing away with the old gut for a new gut free of inflamed or diseased tissues?

That is where scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are hoping their new study findings will lead. In their work, the researchers were able to grow extensive numbers of intestinal stem cells, then coax them to develop into different types of mature intestinal cells.  

The study is published online in this month’s Nature Methods.

“Being able to produce a large inventory of intestinal stem cells could be incredibly useful for stem cell therapy, where the cells could be delivered to patients to treat diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis,” said Jeffrey Karp, Harvard Medical School associate professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and co-senior study author. “These cells could also be useful for pharmaceutical companies to screen and identify new drugs that could regulate diseases from inflammatory bowel disease, to diabetes, to obesity.  However, to date there hasn’t been a way to expand intestinal stem cell numbers.”

“This opens the door to doing all kinds of things, ranging from someday engineering a new gut for patients with intestinal diseases to doing drug screening for safety and efficacy,” said Robert Langer, David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and co-senior study author.

In the “crypts” of the human gut are immature adult stem cells that live alongside specialized cells called Paneth cells. The stem cells remain immature as long as they remain in contact with Paneth cells. But the researchers found that when Paneth cells are removed and replaced with two small molecules involved in cell signaling, these molecules could direct the stem cells to develop into pure populations of proliferating stem cells. By introducing other molecules to the mix, the pure cells could further develop into specialized mature intestinal cells.

“This is an opportunity to generate a large number of relevant mature gastrointestinal cell types that was not possible before and enable high-throughput screening using these cell types,” said Xiaolei Yin, a postdoctoral researcher in the Karp lab and lead study author.

Moreover, the researchers note that their findings could be potentially applied for in vivo use of small molecule drugs to help regenerate cells to replace damaged gut tissue caused by disease.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (DE013023) and a Harvard Institute of Translational Immunology/HelmsleyTrust Pilot Grant in Crohn’s Disease.

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