Organoids are three-dimensional, lab-grown cellular systems that mimic the characteristics of organs or tissues. The grown organoids can then be used to study aspects of that organ type in a petri dish.
One of the latest feats in organoid research was the successful coaxing of having stem cells grow into human blood vessels. It was researchers from the University of British Columbia who figured it out and they published a detailed outline of the study in the journal Nature.
What is so amazing about this research is that the system of blood vessels grown in the lab are virtually identical to the ones currently transporting blood throughout the body. They are using this now to generate new leads in diabetes treatment. They put the lab-grown blood vessels in a petri dish designed to mimic a “diabetic environment.”
“Surprisingly, we could observe a massive expansion of the basement membrane in the vascular organoids. This typical thickening of the basement membrane is strikingly similar to the vascular damage seen in diabetic patients.” – Reiner Wimmer
When they did this, they discovered that the basement membrane thickened in a way that was “strikingly similar” to the thickening seen in patients with diabetes. Reiner Wimmer, the study’s first author and a postdoctoral research fellow at IMBA, said:
“What is so exciting about our work is that we were successful in making real human blood vessels out of stem cells. Our organoids resemble human capillaries to a great extent, even on a molecular level, and we can now use them to study blood vessel diseases directly on human tissue.”
What Is Basement Membrane Thickening?
The blood vessels in a person who has diabetes often exhibit an abnormal thickening of what’s known as the “basement membrane.” This thickening impairs the transfer of oxygen and nutrients to cells and tissues, which can cause a plethora of health problems, such as kidney failure, heart attacks, strokes, blindness and peripheral artery disease, leading to amputations.
How The Research Helps
When they saw that the experimental replica of the blood vessels were similar to the real thing the researchers immediately went on the hunt for a chemical compound that could prevent this thickening in their lab-grown blood vessels and found one: an inhibitor of the enzyme γ-secretase. This suggests that inhibiting γ-secretase in patients could be a helpful diabetes treatment.
Also, there are potential uses for lab-grown blood vessels far beyond diabetes research says the study’s senior author Josef Penninger, the Canada 150 Research Chair in Functional Genetics, director of the Life Sciences Institute at UBC and founding director of the Institute for Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (IMBA). He said in a press release:
“Being able to build human blood vessels as organoids from stem cells is a game changer. Every single organ in our body is linked with the circulatory system…This could potentially allow researchers to unravel the causes and treatments for a variety of vascular diseases, from Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular diseases, wound healing problems, stroke, cancer and, of course, diabetes.”
Diabetes affects an estimated 420 million people worldwide yet very little is known about the vascular changes arising from diabetes. This research could be the key to unlock the door of potential treatments for all these people.