There is something special in the air. Something that can help us treat lung diseases like emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis, and even COVID-19 not just with drugs, but with the regeneration of the lung cells themselves. The work of a group of researchers from the Center for Regenerative Medicine (CReM), a joint venture between Boston University and Boston Medical Center, can make a difference.
The journey of discovery
The CReM team of researchers has long since embarked on a long journey. A scientific journey, of course: with the aim of grafting cells into injured lung tissue to regenerate the airways or lung alveoli.
But how do you get these cells to "take root" so that they last a long time and are functional? The answer may lie in lung stem cells.
The art of lung cell engineering
The team focused on developing ways to engineer each of the stamina cells of the lung in the laboratory using pluripotent stem cells. Once this process was perfected, they developed methods for transplanting these cells into experimental mouse models with injured lungs.
In their study entitled "Airway Stem Cell Reconstitution by Transplantation of Primary or Pluripotent Stem Cell-Derived Basal Cells" (I link it here), the CReM researchers explored the airways of the lungs. These airways are lined with an epithelium that has well-defined stem cells called "basal cells". Cells that are responsible for maintaining these airways throughout life.
The future of regenerative medicine
Darrell Kotton, the study's corresponding author and director of the CReM, enthused. 'By differentiating pluripotent stem cells into basal airway cells in the laboratory, we were able to use these cells to rebuild damaged airways.'
It's not all. In their second study (that I link to you here), the CReM researchers targeted the pulmonary alveoli. The team developed methods for grafting engineered cells into the alveoli, the region of the lung responsible for gas exchange.
A dream that becomes reality
Martin Ma, first author of the first study, enthuses: "We hope that this work will pave the way for new therapeutic approaches in which induced pluripotent stem cells can be created from any patient with lung disease, differentiated into lung stem cells in the laboratory, and used to the transplant."
And for those suffering from genetic lung diseases? The solution may be at hand. Michael Herriges, PhD, first author of the second study, added: 'It is possible to genetically modify the cells in the laboratory before transplantation. This means that the newly grafted cells will have had their gene mutation corrected and should be disease free.'
Regenerating the lung, a sigh of hope
According to Kotton, these studies represent the culmination of 20 years of research. Sure, treating lung diseases like emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis, and COVID-19 will require a lot more research, but we have hope. Perhaps, in the not too distant future, we may see children and adults with familial forms of lung disease treated with this type of approach.