The reprogrammed cells were also capable of producing T cells – a type of white blood cell important for fighting infection – in the lab.
While several studies have shown it is possible to produce collections of distinct cell types in a dish, such as heart or liver cells, scientists haven’t yet been able to grow a fully intact organ from cells created outside the body.
Professor Clare Blackburn from the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, who led the research, said: “The ability to grow replacement organs from cells in the lab is one of the ‘holy grails‘ in regenerative medicine. But the size and complexity of lab-grown organs has so far been limited. By directly reprogramming cells we’ve managed to produce an artificial cell type that, when transplanted, can form a fully organised and functional organ. This is an important first step towards the goal of generating a clinically useful artificial thymus in the lab.” The researchers carried out their study using cells taken from mouse embryos.
By increasing levels of a protein called FOXN1, which guides development of the thymus during normal organ development in the embryo, they were able to directly reprogramme these cells to become a type of thymus cell called thymic epithelial cells.