With their remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types during early life and growth, stem cells play a crucial role in maintaining the body’s organs. They are also able to repair damaged tissue, but stem cells need to become a specific cell type to be useful. Analysing their development process could make stem cell therapy more effective and lead to possible treatments of various conditions.
Partially supported by the EU-funded StemHealth project, researchers have found that all cells in the foetal intestine have the potential to develop into stem cells. This information could help scientists manipulate stem cells more easily for stem cell therapy. Their findings were published in the journal ‘Nature’. According to the study, the development of immature intestinal cells is not predetermined – contrary to previous assumptions – but is affected by the cells’ immediate surroundings. The article says “stem-cell identity is an induced rather than a hardwired property.”
In a news release, Associate Prof. Kim Jensen from the University of Copenhagen says: “We used to believe that a cell’s potential for becoming a stem cell was predetermined, but our new results show that all immature cells have the same probability for becoming stem cells in the fully developed organ.” He adds: “If we are able to identify the signals that are necessary for the immature cell to develop into a stem cell, it will be easier for us to manipulate cells in the wanted direction.” Prof. Jensen says the findings could help offer a better treatment for non-healing wounds, such as those in the intestines.
The ongoing StemHealth (Foetal Intestinal Stem Cells in Biology and Health) project was launched to understand the mechanisms through which cells in the immature intestines develop. The researchers hope the project will improve their ability to generate sustainable sources of cells for transplantation so that they could be used in future therapies dependent on regenerative medicine in which the body heals itself. They also believe the study will be beneficial for patients suffering from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that causes bloody diarrhoea, stomach pain and discomfort. The partners summarise the expected project outcome on CORDIS: “Clinically, it provides the framework for initiating clinical trials for patients with IBD and protocols to obtain mature adult epithelium for in vitro disease modelling.”
Other EU-funded projects also involve IBD. For example, EPIREP (Characterization of epithelial wound repair at the molecular level for revealing epithelial aspects of inflammatory bowel disease) examines the “transitional cellular fate of intestinal epithelial cells during regeneration,” as explained on CORDIS. The project ended in 2017.
Similarly, the fetISC (Characterizing drivers of intestinal tissue maturation in vitro and in vivo) project identifies the molecular and epigenetic properties of foetal and adult intestinal cells. A report on CORDISstates: “Our results demonstrate that large scale tissue remodelling and cell fate specification are intertwined processes.” The fetISC project ended in 2018.
Like the three above-mentioned projects that address IBD where there is no cure, the INTENS (INtestinal Tissue ENgineering Solution) project focuses on short bowel syndrome (SBS), which also has no cure. SBS is related to poor absorption of nutrients and it occurs when all or part of the small intestine is missing or has been removed during surgery.