For years, researchers have been using stem cells to create other kinds of human tissues, and they’ve done a great job of being able to make those stem cells into almost anything. Up until now, however, nobody was able to perfectly replicate human blood vessels.
Dr. Josef Penninger began working on this difficult project in Vienna years ago. Now he and a team of skilled researchers at the University of British Columbia have used stem cells taken from human skin to create a petri-dish form of blood vessels that look and act exactly like real human blood vessels.
“Blood vessels are everywhere. They nurture every tissue we have,” said Dr. Penninger. “Every single organ in our body is linked with the circulatory system.”
Dr. Penninger and his team created blood vessel organoids—3-D models of real human blood vessels—using the stem cells and then placed these organoids into living mice. There, the new blood vessels attached to old ones and became fully functioning human blood vessels, growing in a non-human species.
The research will help scientists understand more about how the circulatory system works with the rest of the body. “We came up actually with some molecular mechanisms [to show] how this milieu of high glucose actually affects the blood vessels, and we can totally prevent this from happening,” said Dr. Penninger.
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This new breakthrough could also potentially help researchers disentangle issues in treating a wide range of diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, slow-healing wounds, and more.
For example, the majority of complications (e.g. foot ulcers) and deaths from diabetes stem from the lack of nutrients to certain tissues because of the hardening and thickening of certain blood vessels, especially in the hands and feet. New blood vessels could help get nutrients to all areas of the body, speeding the healing of wounds and lessening the risk of amputation. In fact, researchers have already mimicked a diabetic environment in the lab and identified a γ-secretase enzyme inhibitor which could stop the thickening of blood vessels.
Similarly, those with cardiovascular disease or who have suffered a stroke are in poor health due to blocked blood vessels. The addition of new blood vessels early on, when a patient is found to be at risk of stroke or heart attack, could prevent either of these disastrous events from happening.
The lab-grown blood vessels could even be used to treat cancer by diverting blood away from cancerous tumors, cutting off their supply of nutrients. Understanding more about how the blood vessels work might also help scientists figure out how to stop the rapid growth of new blood vessels to feed tumors.
Learn more about Dr. Penninger’s important work and how lab-grown blood vessels could change the world in the video below:
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?