Cincinnati Children's Hospital is part of a national effort to create a kind of mini-patient to test drugs. Each partner is concentrating on creating a different part of the human body.
Researchers at Cincinnati Children's are in the process of making what's called an organoid. An organoid is a structure that resembles an organ. This one mimics the stomach and intestine.
Jim Wells, Ph.D., admits it's not a simple process. He starts with human stem cells and tricks them into acting like small pieces of intestine. They do have some function. They can absorb nutrients and secrete proteins.
"It's sort of like making a cake. We're building in an added layer to the cake so the cake now has some of the basic intestinal structure. It has the inside part of the intestine which does the absorption. It has some of the muscles of the intestine which are important for the movement."
What's missing is the squeezing function. Wells is growing neural cells to stimulate the muscles to contract. This may take two years. In three to five years a division of the National Institutes of Health hopes to link up all the parts to create a fully functioning human system.
Program Director Danilo Tagle, Ph.D., says drug companies would then choose what systems to connect. "For example if a drug is going to be orally available that is taken through the mouth, so you probably want to line up first as far as where your drug is going to come in through the stomach and the gastrointestinal tract and eventually going to the liver, kidney and other organs and so you would order them in that particular way."
Eventually Cincinnati Children's hopes to translate this research into growing entire organs for transplant.