Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes
Researchers at MIT and Brigham and Women's Hospital have shown that they can grow unlimited quantities of intestinal stem cells, then stimulate them to develop into nearly pure populations of different types of mature intestinal cells. Using these cells, scientists could develop and test new drugs to treat diseases such as ulcerative colitis.
The small intestine, like most other body tissues, has a small store of immature adult stem cells that can differentiate into more mature, specialized cell types. Until now, there has been no good way to grow large numbers of these stem cells, because they only remain immature while in contact with a type of supportive cells called Paneth cells.
In a new study appearing in the Dec. 1 online edition of Nature Methods, the researchers found a way to replace Paneth cells with two small molecules that maintain stem cells and promote their proliferation. Stem cells grown in a lab dish containing these molecules can stay immature indefinitely; by adding other molecules, including inhibitors and activators, the researchers can control what types of cells they eventually become.
"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. It's really the first time this has been done," says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor, a member of MIT's Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and one of the paper's senior authors.
Jeffrey Karp, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital, is also a senior author of the paper. The paper's lead author is Xiaolei Yin, a postdoc at the Koch Institute and Brigham and Women's Hospital.
From one cell, many
The inner layer of the intestines has several critical functions. Some cells are specialized to absorb nutrients from digested food, while others form a barrier that secretes mucus and prevents viruses and bacteria from entering cells. Still others alert the immune system when a foreign pathogen is present.
This layer, known as the intestinal epithelium, is coated with many small indentations known as crypts. At the bottom of each crypt is a small pool of epithelial stem cells, which constantly replenish the specialized cells of the intestinal epithelium, which only live for about five days. These stem cells can become any type of intestinal epithelial cell, but don't have the pluripotency of embryonic stem cells, which can become any cell type in the body.
If scientists could obtain large quantities of intestinal epithelial stem cells, they could be used to help treat gastrointestinal disorders that damage the epithelial layer. Recent studies in animals have shown that intestinal stem cells delivered to the gut can attach to ulcers and help regenerate healthy tissue, offering a potential new way to treat ulcerative colitis.
Using those stem cells to produce large populations of specialized cells would also be useful for drug development and testing, the researchers say. With large quantities of goblet cells, which help control the immune response to proteins found in food, scientists could study food allergies; with enteroendocrine cells, which release hunger hormones, they could test new treatments for obesity.
"If we had ways of performing high-throughput screens on large numbers of these very specific cell types, we could potentially identify new targets and develop completely new drugs for diseases ranging from inflammatory bowel disease to diabetes," Karp says.
Controlling cell fate