The pea-sized lumps of tissue growing in the lab might not look like much, but under the microscope, with the help of colorful stains to distinguish between different cells, these lumps get interesting. The folds and cell layers are much like those found in the lining of a human stomach. Researchers have grown miniature stomachs in a dish, they report in Nature.
The stomachs aren’t exactly like the life-sized organ resting below your ribs — they aren’t fully developed, so they’re more akin to a the stomach of a developing fetus or a newborn baby.
The research team, lead by James Wells of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, sees these mini-stomachs as a valuable tool to study infections that can lead to ulcers and cancer. As a test, the team infected one of the mini-stomachs with H. pyloi bacteria — a common culprit in ulcer cases.
"We’re now planning to really dissect how these infections happen, which of the stomach cells are really being adversely impacted by the stomach bacteria, and how can we use chemicals to attenuate or shut off this response," Wells told Arielle Duhaime-Ross at The Verge.
By bathing stem cells in carefully timed squirts of the right hormones and chemical cues, the team nudged them along the right developmental path.
The stomachs remain pea-sized because they don’t have blood vessels that could allow them to grow bigger, writes Rachel Feltman at The Washington Post. So, growing full-sized replacement stomachs for people is still science fiction. But these tiny stomachs might be one step toward growing patches that can repair ulcers and other damage.
Mini-stomachs aren’t the first tiny organ scientists have grown in the lab. Just last week another group reported they had generated human small intestines in dishes. Last year, mini-brains were spun from stem cells in cell culture. Maybe one day soon scientists will be able to assemble an entire human organ system, in miniature.