The idea of growing replacement organs has long been in the offing but drawing nearer in recent years, especially as 3-D printing has advanced into the medical realm. In a more recent achievement, scientists took an even closer step forward with lab-grown organs.

For the first time, researchers grew a fully functional organ from laboratory-created cells.

The team from the University of Edinburgh took fibroblast cells from a mouse embryo and reprogrammed them into thymus cells. According to the news release, they then mixed these transformed cells with other cells that make up the thymus, an organ integral to immune system function, and transplanted it into a mouse. There it formed a fully functioning organ.

Left: Specialised thymus cells were created in the lab from a completely different cell type using a technique called reprogramming. Right: The laboratory-created cells were transplanted onto a mouse kidney to form an organised and functional mini-thymus in a living animal. (Image and caption: MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh)

Left: Specialised thymus cells were created in the lab from a completely different cell type using a technique called reprogramming. Right: The laboratory-created cells were transplanted onto a mouse kidney to form an organised and functional mini-thymus in a living animal. (Image and caption: MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh)

“This is an exciting study but much more work will be needed before this process can be reproduced in a safe and tightly controlled way suitable for use in humans,” Dr. Rob Buckle, head of regenerative medicine at the university’s MRC Center, said in a statement.

This was the first time, according to the news release, that a whole organ was created from reprogrammed cells outside the body.

“This was a complete surprise to us, that we were really being able to generate a fully functional and fully organised organ starting with reprogrammed cells in really a very straightforward way,” Clare Blackburn, a professor at the university, told BBC about the research, which was published in the journal Nature Cell Biology. ”This is a very exciting advance and it’s also very tantalizing in terms of the wider field of regenerative medicine.”

The researchers believe their findings could someday be promising to those with impaired thymus function.

Chris Mason, a professor of regenerative medicine at University College London who was not involved with the research, told the Guardian the possibility of this becoming a way to grow replacement organs safely for humans is still likely a decade away.

“The time and resources required to turn this mouse proof-of-concept study into a safe and effective routine therapy for patients will be very significant – 10 years and tens of millions of pounds at a bare minimum,” Mason said.

A separate study published earlier this year also showed how it was possible to regenerate an aging thymus, which often leads to poor immune function.

Front page image via Shutterstock.