Published in Nature Methods, the method is based on microfluidics and can help better understand how tissues are formed in the embryo, setting the stage for fabricating functional tissues and organs for drug testing and transplantation.It's no surprise that using human embryos for biological and medical research comes with many ethical concerns. Correct though it is to proceed with caution in these matters, the fact is that much science would benefit from being able to study human biology more accurately.
The results were impressive: the cells developed and organized into domains of different cell types, depending on the concentration they were exposed to, like they do in the body. In fact, the scientists report that they were able to successfully mimic aspects of gastrulation, paving the way for growing specific human tissues in the lab in a more controlled manner.
“We hypothesized that engineering an artificial signaling center ‘ex vivo’ could allow us to steer the self-organization of a stem cell population towards a desired outcome,” explains Manfrin. “This has obvious advantages for tissue and organ engineering.”
These advantages include new tools for drug testing and regenerative medicine. The new technique can also help scientists study processes related to developmental biology – like gastrulation – and could provide alternatives to animal experimentation in some areas of research.
"One of our long-term goals is to engineer organs for transplantation," says Lütolf, who is already working with groups at the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) and elsewhere to generate miniaturized organs (‘organoids’) from patient-derived cells. “We are still far from growing functional organs in a dish; but recent progress in stem cell biology and bioengineering make me optimistic that this can become a reality. The key is to better understand how cells themselves build tissues and organs in the embryo”.
Andrea Manfrin, Yoji Tabata, Eric R. Paquet, Ambroise R. Vuaridel, François R. Rivest, Felix Naef, Matthias P. Lutolf. Engineered signaling centers for the spatially controlled patterning of human pluripotent stem cells. Nature Methods 27 June 2019. DOI: 10.1038/s41592-019-0455-2