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Thursday, 20 June, 2002, 18:03 GMT 19:03 UK
Immune gland made from stem cells
Thymus tissue under microscope
T-cells "being programmed" in thymus tissue (image: Willem van Ewijk)
Scientists have used embryonic stem cells to create an organ vital for the function of the immune system.

The success, although only in mice at the moment, brings closer the day when even larger organs might be "manufactured" as replacements.

The thymus, which is found in the chest between the breast bone and the heart, makes white blood T-cells.

These are a key weapon when the body is trying to fight off infection.


It presents the possibility that scientists could create an assembly line for generating patient specific immune cells

Dr David Grant, Leukaemia Research Fund
Scientists hope that they will be able to produce human T-cells in the laboratory to help patients with immune systems depleted either by illnesses such as Aids, or treatment such as chemotherapy.

Normally, the thymus stops working after puberty, leaving people dependent on the T-cells already made.

This means that any situation which destroys T-cells can leave patients vulnerable.

To create their "thymus", doctors tracked down a particular type of stem cell from the mouse called a thymic epithelial progenitor cell.

Stem cells are the body's "master cells", capable of changing into a wide variety of different cell types to construct the body's tissues.

Production line

Growing these cells in culture allows thymus tissue to be created.

This tissue can be implanted in mice who have lost their immune system - and starts to replace it.

Dr Clare Blackburn, who led the research, published in the journal Immunity, said that she was hopeful the same principles would work in humans.

"Our findings show clearly that we are able to generate a thymus, starting from this tiny population of cells.

"Evidence suggest that the human thymus will develop in the same way as mice, but we need to find the specific markers that define these unique cells in humans before we could know for sure."

Dr David Grant, from the Leukaemia Research Fund, described the research as "exciting".

"Importantly, it presents the possibility that scientists could create an assembly line for generating patient specific immune cells."

See also:

03 Dec 01 | Health
03 Dec 01 | Health
18 Nov 01 | Briefing
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