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Laboratory Made Organs – The First Thymus
One of the largest scientific breakthroughs of the decade leads to the generation of the first artificial thymus.
02 April, 2021

Furthering Frontiers in Biotechnology at the Francis Crick Institute

Until recently, lab-grown organs were a fragment of science fiction. However, in the last few decades, expansive progress has been made in the field of regenerative medicine, which is slowly changing what was previously thought impossible about the use of synthetic organs. 

Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute recently created a functioning thymus, the glandular lymphoid (associated with the immune system) organ located behind the sternum, synthetically from human cells. This development is a game-changing revelation and makes strides in furthering regenerative medicine and immunological disease research. 

Regenerative medicine is concerned with the growth, repair, and replacement of body tissues and organs; one of the most ambitious projects that can be undertaken in this field is the production of a fully functioning synthetic organ. Thereby, this development is a massive progression within the field and another step in the marathon towards the clinical use of synthetic organs.

Researchers produced a scaled-down thymus (plural thymi), which was successfully transplanted into live mice and created from human thymic stem cells. Stem cells are regenerative cells that can give rise to many different types of cells. In this case, transitional epithelial and mesenchymal thymic stem cells were injected into scaffolds, where they then rapidly grew and differentiated until eventually comprising an entirely new organ.

It should also be noted that due to its unique structure, it has previously been very difficult to create thymus scaffolds for synthetic purposes. Asllan Gjinovci, a Francis Crick researcher, developed a novel technique to remove the cells from the thymus and leave only its structural scaffold. This technique has been noted as fundamental to the results of the experiment. 

The findings of this recent paper not only progress regenerative medicine but also further widen the field of immunological disease research. Author Roberta Ragazzini is beginning to “use bioengineered thymi to investigate and dissect molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in thymic function and disease”. This development would allow for non-invasive research of different thymic pathologies and greatly improve the quality of human tissue models relative to the current animal-based ones used.

Additionally, author Sara Campionti noted that as improvements are made with bioengineered thymi, “in the next few years, [we may] be able to treat paediatric patients with severe congenital immune deficiencies”. One way these deficiencies could be treated is through thymus transplants. 

A common issue with performing any type of organ transplantation is organ rejection, which happens when the immune system recognizes a transplanted tissue as “non-self” and attacks it. This could possibly be avoided by transplanting synthetic thymi grown from host cells – cells from the patient receiving the transplant themself. Host cell transplant organs would not only lead to fewer procedural complications but also change clinical protocol following transplants. Currently, patients are required to take immunosuppressants following transplantation surgeries, which render them immunocompromised (with weakened immune systems) for the rest of their life. Patient-derived transplant organs would eliminate the need to weaken the body’s “non-self” immune response and enable transplant patients to live longer and healthier lives.

The results of this paper and the prospects it creates are very exciting. While regenerative medicine is a field still in its early days, promising discoveries such as this are beginning to change what was once considered to be imaginary to a probable reality.

I would like to extend my gratitude to Sara Campioniti, a co-author of the paper reported on, for her comments and insight about this ground-breaking work. 

Member, KCL Bioscience Students' Association

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