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Researchers are breeding human blood vessels without a body for the first time
An Austrian research team reports on a completely new approach to curing diabetes and other chronic diseases. For the first time, the researchers have succeeded in reproducing functional human blood vessels, i.e. veins, from stem cells in the laboratory. In this way, the team wants to gain new insights into diabetes, cancer and other vascular diseases.
In recent years, stem cell research has repeatedly shown that it is possible to reproduce organs or cells from stem cells. Such cultured organs are called vascular organoids. Researchers at the Institute for Molecular Biotechnology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (IMBA) have now for the first time succeeded in growing a network of functional human blood vessels from stem cells. Such vein systems without a body should enable completely new studies that could make vascular diseases curable. The study results were recently published in the renowned journal "Nature".
Research breakthrough or exceeding ethics?
The IMBA team speaks of a milestone in stem cell research. The so-called blood vessel organoids from the laboratory should become an important driving force in basic research. Because, according to the researchers, the re-cultivated human vein systems reflect processes of organ development and disease development in humans. Thanks to such systems, vascular diseases such as diabetes can be “re-enacted” in the laboratory for the first time. "Our organoids are incredibly similar to human capillaries and for the first time allow us to examine blood vessel diseases directly on human tissue," explains Reiner Wimmer, the first author of the current study, in a press release.
New therapies for vascular diseases are needed
The human blood vessels cover the body like a fine network and not only reach all organs. The smallest veins, the so-called capillaries, are only a few micrometers in size and supply every single cell in the body with vital nutrients and oxygen. As the researchers report, pathological changes in the blood vessels, as is the case with diabetes, are increasing rapidly worldwide. Around 420 million people are now affected. Those suffering from diabetes also have an increased risk of serious complications such as kidney failure, blindness, heart attack, stroke and amputations. Given the increasing numbers, the research team urgently needs to develop more effective therapies.
What role do capillaries play in diabetes?
According to the researchers, the first disease processes take place in the tiny branches of the capillaries. The outer wall of these vessels is covered by so-called basement membranes that support the capillaries. These membranes are massively enlarged in diabetes patients, which means that the supply of nutrients and oxygen is considerably restricted. This often leads to the death of the small blood vessels.
Bred vascular diseases
The cultured blood vessel organoids from the laboratory make it possible for the first time to simulate such disease processes on “real” blood vessels. The researchers passed a nutrient medium with a high sugar content and inflammatory substances through the vessels. "Surprisingly, we were able to observe the thickening of the basement membrane in diabetic organoids typical of diabetes," summarizes Wimmer.
Drug test with a difference
In further experiments, the researchers tested how the diabetic blood vessels reacted to current diabetes medications. Most of the medicines, however, had no effects. However, the team was able to identify two molecules (Notch3 and Dll4) that significantly regulate the thickening of the basement membrane of the capillaries. A review of human diabetes patients also showed that they showed increased Notch3 activity. Blocking these signaling pathways could be a new approach to treating diabetes, the research team suggests.
New insights into Alzheimer's and cancer are also possible
"At the same time, blood vessels also play a key role in the progression of cancer or Alzheimer's disease," added Josef Penninger, the founding director of the IMBA. Every single organ in our organism is connected to the circulatory system. With the development of blood vessel organoids from stem cells, the team created an important model system for biomedicine, according to the researchers. (vb)