Let’s not be alarmed; no one has put an embryo, intended as a living human (born from the union of an egg cell and a spermatozoon) on a slide, in order to study it. Rather, these are human stem cells that have been deposited onto a chip and properly stimulated — and then left to organize into embryonic leaflets that will give rise to real tissue.

This research was conducted at the Polytechnic University of Lausanne (EPFL), but bears the signature of a researcher from Padua, Andrea Manfrin; an additional example of the excellence of Italian research, even if it’s been exported abroad.

Let’s take a closer look at how this research was developed. First of all, we have to explain what a chip is in the biological field.

It’s a slide the size of a credit card on which thin channels are etched, in order to allow fluids to flow and meet even those containing cells. Stem cells, on the other hand, are non-differentiated cells that have the potential to develop in any cell and tissue housed within the human body.

Researchers have deposited human stem cells on the chip, and then they have run in the channels of molecules (called morphogens) that have induced stem cells to begin to differentiate into the three embryonic leaflets; each of which will give rise to tissue of various types and then, in nature, to a complete organism.

The chip has the task of conveying, through its channels, the morphogens to the stem cells — in a precise and controllable quantity — so as to induce the stem cells to aggregate in one direction, rather than in another.

What are the advantages of this research?

There are many advantages, starting with the fact that this research is currently the most technological solution for obtaining a stock of stem cells without the “residual” ethical problems. Another important advantage is the possibility of closely monitoring the way in which embryonic cells organize themselves, in order to form tissue and organs. This possibility is essential, in an effort to advance basic research, but also for possible real-world applications.

What are the latest developments?

The Lausanne researchers’ hypothesis is to engineer a system of artificial signals (morphogens), in order to guide a group of self-organized stem cells toward a desired goal. In other words, the intention is certainly not to create a complete organism, but rather to form organs and tissue in the laboratory that could be later used for transplantation. Think of all the people who are now waiting for transplants and whose only hope is that Doctors find a compatible donor.

In the United States alone, 230 people die each-and-every day, due to the lack of compatible donor organs. An alternative is the 3D printing of the organ, but having the possibility of having the organ becoming damaged by their own stem cells would be of great help, in an effort to avoid rejection problems, but also to take large amounts of immunosuppressants.

An additional application is the possibility of testing drugs on human tissue, but outside of a patient’s body. It would represent a huge step forward for the creation of safer, more effective and (or almost) free-of-side-effect drugs. Another leap forward toward personalized medicine.

This post is also available in: Italiano


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