Researchers have developed a miniature version of a lung in a dish, called an "organoid," that functions just like a real, full-size lung. These mini organs aren't designed for transplants or to support a living creature in any direct way, but rather as a research tool to study human disease and test drugs that could help regenerate damaged tissue.

A team from Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) created tiny 3-D structures from human pluripotent stem cells that mimic the features and appearance of a full-sized lung.

"Researchers have taken up the challenge of creating organoids to help us understand and treat a variety of diseases," said Columbia professor of medicine Hans-Willem Snoeck, PhD, the lead investigator of the study. "But we have been tested by our limited ability to create organoids that can replicate key features of human disease."

We've seen stem cell research provide a number of promising developments in growing heart tissue, tendons and even artificial mouse embryos.

The lung organoids created from stem cells in Dr. Snoeck's lab represent a major advance in that they are the first to include key structures similar to those in human lungs.

The researchers infected the organoids with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which is a major cause of respiratory infection in infants that currently has no vaccine and cannot be treated with existing medication. The mini-lungs reacted much the same way as the real thing in humans.

In further experiments, the organoids were given a gene mutation linked to pulmonary fibrosis and they also behaved just like real lungs with the same condition. Pulmonary fibrosis causes scarring in the lungs and a lung transplant is the only known cure – it causes 30,000 to 40,000 deaths annually in the United States alone.

"Organoids, created with human pluripotent or genome-edited embryonic stem cells, may be the best, and perhaps only, way to gain insight into the (causes) of these diseases," Dr. Snoeck says.

The study was published last month in Nature Cell Biology.

Source: Columbia University