This past weekend, I attended my 35th high school reunion. It’s a strange phenomenon to be meeting people you haven’t seen since you were 18, and further weirdness ensues when we discover that most of them are already grandparents. There have been a lot of life changes in 35 years. Saddest of all, though, is the ritual listing of the deceased…and I learned that one of my former classmates died in her late 40s of emphysema, a progressive and irreversible lung disease that leads to the near complete loss of lung function. The only cure right now is a lung transplant, and patients who’ve been suffering with emphysema for long typically have so many other problems that they’re poor candidates for surgery, not to mention that the waiting list for organs is long, and a transplant means a life-long commitment to anti-rejection drug treatments.
There will come a day, though, when new lungs can be built and replacement surgeries more common. That day is definitely not yet here, though, but there are promising signs on the horizon. One such sign is recent work in tissue engineering to grow lungs in a dish.
We can grow functional rat lungs in a tissue culture chamber now, which show some limited ability to support respiration when transplanted back into another rat. Here’s an overview of the procedure; I’ll go through it step by step.
The first step is to collect a donor rat lung. The organ is cut out of a living rat, who will quickly become a dead rat; this part of the procedure probably can’t be scaled up to human transplantations, for obvious reasons. However, lungs from dead people or perhaps even lungs from appropriately sized animals will be adequate.
This donor lung is then stripped of all of its living cells. This is done by perfusing it with a detergent solution. Membranes dissolve and rupture in the presence of detergent, so all of the cells in the lung are basically destroyed, their contents, including cytoplasm, nucleus and DNA, and membranes and organelles are washed away.
What’s left then? Connective tissue and extracellular proteins. All that’s left is a frothy, fragile matrix of fibers like collagen and elastin, and imbedded signaling proteins that will be useful in supporting the growth of new cells. It leaves behind a kind of porous, pale ghost lung, a collection of microscopic struts that just needs to be draped with new cells.
This is the key step. Lungs are complicated, delicate membranous structures, and it would be hard to regrow it entirely from scratch. Starting with an acellular scaffold, though, a kind of skeleton of a lung that sketches out the arrangement of alveoli and blood vessels gives the tissue engineering a head start. It really is amazing how much of the organization of the lung is still left when all of the cells are removed: the photos below show the air spaces left behind (on the left) and the major blood vessels (on the right). There are no cells here! This is just an outline of the structure left by the still extant connective tissue!
What’s promising about this so far is that almost all of the antigenic components of the lung are removed; if this lacework of proteins were transplanted into another animal, it probably wouldn’t provoke an immune response. Of course, it also wouldn’t work as a lung, because there are no gas exchange surfaces present, and everything is leaky. It’s only a skeleton of a lung, remember…so let’s fix that.
The next step is to suspend the lung framework in a chamber, with tubes attached to the airways and to the blood vessels. Living, isolated lung epithelial cells are then introduced into the airways, and lung endothelial cells (the cells that line blood vessels) are introduced into the pulmonary arteries and veins. These cells stick to the scaffolds and grow. They actually grow better in the lung matrix than they do in a petri dish, probably because of the presence of growth factor proteins lurking in the acellular scaffold.
The new cells use the matrix as a guide and repopulate and rebuild the cellular structure of the lung. During this whole process, the tissue culture medium is pumped through the arteries to mimic the effects of blood pressure, and air is pumped into the airways. It works beautifully. New columnar epithelial cells grow to line alveoli, and endothelial cells line the blood vessels appropriately, and the cells produce the right secreted proteins, like surfactants that reduce surface tension and are important for allow lungs to inflate. It takes about a week for the new lung tissues to form, and they are robust, producing sheets of cells that can tolerate the same pressures as intact, normal lungs.
Now for the real test. The regrown lungs were transplanted into living rats for 45 minutes to two hours. They worked! Everything stitched together nicely, and the engineered tissues pinked up nicely as blood flowed into them. Blood was visibly oxygenated as it passed through the new lung, and measurements of the partial pressure of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood showed that the former went up and the latter went down, exactly as it is supposed to do.
This is all very promising, but the transplantation times were very short, and you might be wondering why. These lungs aren’t perfect. There was bleeding from the blood vessels into the airways, and also some blood clotting — for this to work, the barrier membranes have to be essentially perfect, and they aren’t, yet. The poor rats’ lungs would have spluttered and fallen apart with prolonged use, and the blood clots would have led to thrombosis eventually.
Another problem, and one that has to be solved eventually if this is ever to work for human transplantations, is the source of the cellular components. The connective tissue stuff is only weakly antigenic, so isn’t going to provoke a strong immune response, but repopulating it with foreign cells brings the rejection problem roaring right back. What we need next for long term success is to find a source of lung adult stem cells, or a way to induce pluripotent stem cells to make the cell types needed.
That’s right, we need more human stem cell research. If you need a new lung, and we’re going to have to reengineer one for you in a dish, we’ll need a population of autologous cells — cells from you — to reseed an acellular matrix taken from a cadaver or a pig with lung tissue that won’t trigger an immune response.
This is a long way from being useful for humans, with two big problems still facing us, refinement of the tissue-engineering technique to produce more reliable and complete membranes, and the all-important stem cell research to allow us to create sources of immunologically-compatible cells, but the cool thing is that the questions that need to be answered are in crystal-clear focus, and there are strategies to get us the answers. Time and money and a less restrictive regulatory environment for stem cell work is all that is needed.
Petersen TH, Calle EA, Zhao L, Lee EJ, Gui L, Raredon MB, Gavrilov K, Yi T, Zhuang ZW, Breuer C, Herzog E, Niklason LE (2010) Tissue-engineered lungs for in vivo implantation. Science 329(5991):538-41.