Researchers are working on using stem cells to grow healthy intestinal tissue for patients with gastrointestinal disorders.

For people living with gastrointestinal disorders, such as ulcers or Crohn’s disease, treatment often means relieving uncomfortable symptoms through medications or dietary changes. Scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hope their research will someday bring patients relief by being able to grow new, healthy intestinal tissue.

In their recently published work, researchers were able to grow large numbers of intestinal stem cells and then coax them to develop into different types of mature intestinal cells.

“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,” says Dr. Jeffrey Karp, Division of Biomedical Engineering, BWH Department of Medicine, 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.”

Located within the human gastrointestinal tissues 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,” says Dr. Xiaolei Yin, Center for Regenerative Therapeutics, BWH Department of Medicine, lead study author.

Moreover, the researchers note that their findings could be potentially used with small molecule drugs to help regenerate gastrointestinal cells to replace damaged gut tissue caused by disease.

“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 Dr. Robert Langer of MIT and a co-senior study author.

Until stem cell therapy is available, patients suffering from gastrointestinal diseases can find help at the BWH Crohn’s and Colitis Center, offering multidisciplinary care and access to the latest treatments in one location.

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– MMQ/Jamie R.

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