Using stem cells, researchers at UCLA have successfully grown three-dimensional human lung “organoids.” The study may lead to improved treatment for lungs scarred by disease.

“While we haven’t built a fully functional lung, we’ve been able to take lung cells and place them in the correct geometrical spacing and pattern to mimic a human lung, ”said Dr. Brigitte Gomperts, associate professor of pediatric hematology and oncology and the study’s lead author, in a UCLA press release,

This tissue can be used to study various lung diseases such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). The disease scars the lungs, which become thick and stiff, and no longer inflate properly. The amount of oxygen received by the brain and other vital organs diminishes, and the patient suffers shortness of breath. The majority of patients with IPF live for three to five years after diagnosis.

Researchers have attempted to study the disease by taking cells from patients with IPF, but when these cells are grown onto dishes, they appear healthy.

Dr. Gomperts and her team began the process with stem cells created with cells from adult lungs. The cells grew around sticky hydrogel beads, forming the three-dimensional model.

After the models were created, Dr. Gomperts and Dan Wilkinson, a graduate student in the department of materials science and engineering and the paper’s first author, added “certain molecular factors” — unspecified— that caused the lungs to develop scars similar to those found in the lungs of IPF patients. This study will allow clinicians to take cells from a patient, form three dimensional models from their cells, and determine the effects of several drugs on their lungs.

“This is the basis for precision medicine and personalized treatments,” Gomperts said.

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Wilkinson D, Alva-Ornelas D, Sucre J, Vijayaraj P, Durra A, Richardson W, Jonas S, Paul M, Karumbayaram S, Dunn B, Gomperts B. Development of a Three-Dimensional Bioengineering Technology to Generate Lung Tissue for Personalized Disease Modeling. Stem Cells Translation Medicine. 2016.