• 5,000 people are diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis each year 
  • People diagnosed with IPF have a life expectancy of between 3-5 years 
  • Scientists used stem cells to grow lung tissue fragments or ‘organoids’ 
  • Replicated scar tissue in hope research will lead to better treatments 

Kate Pickles For Mailonline



Researchers at UCLA hope the tissue can be used for research into lung diseases including idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis

Tiny ‘human lungs’ have been grown in a laboratory which could revolutionise understanding of fatal diseases.

The breakthrough was made using adult stem cells, which the researchers used to grow tissue fragments that mimic the of the organ. 

While they’re not fully functioning lungs, scientists hope they will be able to use their findings to slow the progression of fatal lung diseases such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). 

The chronic illness causes scarring which makes the lungs thick and stiff which over time results in progressively worsening shortness of breath and lack of oxygen to the brain and vital organs. 

Most people only live about three to five years after diagnosis. 

It can run in families, but smoking and exposure to certain types of dust can also raise the risk of developing it. 

In the latest study, scientists in California coated tiny gel beads with the cells and then allowed them to self assemble into the shapes of the air sacs found in human lungs.

This created the the 3D lung buds, known as ‘organoids.’ 

Dr Brigitte Gomperts, of the University of California, Los Angeles, said: ‘While we have not built a fully functional lung, we have been able to take lung cells and place them in the correct geometrical spacing and pattern to mimic a human lung.’ 

To study the effect of genetic mutations or drugs, researchers have previously relied on 2D cultures of lung cells. 

But when they take cells from patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and grow them on these flat surfaces, they appeared healthy.

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is a fatal lung condition where sufferers generally live between three and five years after diagnosis

Dr Gomperts explained: ‘Scientists have really not been able to model lung scarring in a dish.’

So her researchers used sticky hydrogel beads and coated them with cells from adult lungs.


Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is a rare disorder with an average of 5,000 new cases diagnosed every year.

The condition typically starts in a patient’s mid-60s, with mild breathlessness that’s most noticeable when climbing stairs or walking uphill, but gradually it stops the lungs working altogether.

Unlike other lung diseases with similar symptoms, such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is not caused by airways narrowing.

Instead, it involves a build-up of scar tissue (fibrosis) in the alveoli, the air sacs of the lung that normally inflate and deflate as you breathe in and out.

The process involves a steady deterioration, gradually turning the delicate lace-like structure of the lung tissue into a rigid crust that makes the process of breathing increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible.

Then they partitioned the beads into small wells a quarter of an inch (7 millimetres) across, inside which the lung cells grew into a three dimensional pattern.

To show the tiny organoids mimicked the structure of actual lungs, the researchers compared the lab grown tissues with real sections of human lung.

Graduate student Dan Wilkinson explained: ‘The technique is very simple. We can make thousands of reproducible pieces of tissue that resemble lung and contain patient specific cells.’

Moreover, when the researchers added certain molecular factors to the cultures, the lungs developed scars similar to those seen in the lungs of people who have the disease, something that could not be accomplished in 2D.

As well as enabling researchers to study the biological underpinnings of diseases, the artificial lungs will also help test possible treatments, analyse an individual patient’s condition or what drugs may work best in their case.

Doctors could collect cells from the patient, turn them into stem cells, coax them into lung cells and then use them in 3D cultures.

Because it is so easy to create many tiny organoids at once, researchers could screen the effect of many drugs.

Added Dr Gomperts: ‘This is the basis for precision medicine and personalised treatments.’

The study is published in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine.


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