Generating new lung and airway tissue could soon become reality. In a groundbreaking study, researchers from Columbia University Medical Center show how a certain set of human stem cells can be converted into functioning lung and airway epithelial cells. The findings could have a tremendous impact on current treatment protocols, diagnostic methods, and pharmaceutical research.

According to the authors, the paper builds on insights presented in a 2011 study, in which the same lab showed that a particular set of chemical factors can turn human embryonic stem cells and human pluripotent stem cells into so-called anterior foregut endoderm –– precursors for lung and airway cells. The current study completes the biological instructions for this transformation by introducing an additional set of chemical factors. Senior researcher Hans-William Snoeck, who was involved in both projects, told reporters that the new findings represent a significant step forward.

"Researchers have had relative success in turning human stem cells into heart cells, pancreatic beta cells, intestinal cells, liver cells, and nerve cells, raising all sorts of possibilities for regenerative medicine," he said in a press release. "Now, we are finally able to make lung and airway cells. This is important because lung transplants have a particularly poor prognosis. Although any clinical application is still many years away, we can begin thinking about making autologous lung transplants—that is, transplants that use a patient's own skin cells to generate functional lung tissue."

While the findings have implications for a range of clinical practices and research endeavors, patients diagnosed with lung diseases like idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis may come to benefit the most. "No one knows what causes the disease, and there's no way to treat it," Snoeck explained. "Using this technology, researchers will finally be able to create laboratory models of IPF, study the disease at the molecular level, and screen drugs for possible treatments or cures."

The new study is the latest in a growing series of inquiries into the powerful and often mind-bending properties of human stem cells –– a so-called “undifferentiated” set of cells capable of assuming different characteristics and giving rise to a diverse array of cell populations. Another notable example is a 2013 study in which researchers from University of Granada show that stem cells derived from umbilical cord tissue can be used to generate artificial skin.

"In the longer term, we hope to use this technology to make an autologous lung graft," Dr. Snoeck concluded. "This would entail taking a lung from a donor; removing all the lung cells, leaving only the lung scaffold; and seeding the scaffold with new lung cells derived from the patient. In this way, rejection problems could be avoided."

Source: Sarah X L Huang, Mohammad Naimul Islam, John O'Neill, Zheng Hu, Yong-Guang Yang, Ya-Wen Chen, Melanie Mumau, Michael D Green, Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, Jahar Bhattacharya & Hans-Willem Snoeck. Efficient generation of lung and airway epithelial cells from human pluripotent stem cells. Nature Biotechnology (2013).