Scientists grow miniature stomachs from stem cells
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Scientists grow miniature stomachs from stem cells

Scientists at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, among them the Greek researcher Yana Zavros, have used human stem cells to create for the first time functional, 3-D stomach tissue, little miniature versions of the organ in its earliest stages of development.The breakthrough is important because it will enable researchers to study the very early stages of diseases such as stomach cancer and peptic ulcers, as well as some of the underpinnings of obesity-related diabetes. That, in turn, could help identify ways to prevent such diseases, including the possibility of developing new drugs.

They discovered that the bacteria that cause stomach cancer begin doing their dirty work almost immediately, attaching to the stomach lining and causing tumors to start growing in response. Helicobacter pylori causes many, if not most, cases of stomach cancer, which affects more than 22,000 Americans a year and kills half of them. Stomach cancer is a major killer globally, affecting close to a million people a year and killing more than 70 percent of them.

And the team grew their mini-stomachs using two different types of stem cells — human embryonic stem cells, grown from very early human embryos, but also induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells, which are made by “tricking” bits of skin or other tissue into acting like a stem cell.

“In our hands they worked exactly the same. Both were able to generate, in a petri dish, human stomach tissue. They’re small, football shaped, hollow spheres about the size of a pea. And on the inside, they have a proper stomach lining” said James Wells of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, who led the research.

Scientists often use animals to study human disease, but this isn’t optimal with the stomach. Stomach biology and structure differs greatly from one species to the next, depending on what food it eats. Humans have unique stomachs and unique diseases, also.

Yana Zavros is an Associate Professor of Physiology in the Cincinnati University, co-director of the PhD program in systems biology and physiology and researcher at UC’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology. Her research focuses in sonic hedgehog signaling in the gastric epithelium and the development of gastric cancer in H. pylori infection. Her study of gastric cancer involves the role of Sonic Hedgehog (Shh), named after the video game character «Sonic the Hedgehog” by its discoverers in 1995. Sonic Hedgehog is highly expressed in the adult stomach, and its loss via inflammation or disease contributes to molecular changes that are crucial to development of gastric cancer.

See the study as published at Nature Magazine