Mini-organs offer insights into congenital conditions

Scientists have succeeded in cultivating stem cells from late-stage pregnancy into mini-organs. This makes it possible to better monitor the development of babies in late pregnancy in the future and potentially help them in an early stage. 

In the Netherlands, approximately 13,000 to 15,000 children are born annually with congenital conditions.* Sometimes, signs of a congenital condition are visible on ultrasounds, MRIs, or in DNA. In such cases, amniocentesis is performed for further examination. However, doctors cannot accurately predict how a condition will develop before the baby's birth. 

Mini-organs with unique biological information

To gain more knowledge about this, researchers from England and Belgium collaborated. Stem cells were extracted from the baby's amniotic fluid obtained through a medically necessary amniocentesis. The stem cells from the amniotic fluid contain the unique biological information of the baby. Subsequently, these stem cells were cultured into mini-organs, such as mini-lungs, mini-kidneys, and mini-intestinal cells.

The mini-organs provide researchers with valuable information on how the baby's organs function when healthy, as well as when they are not healthy. Potential treatments can be tested on the mini-organs before the baby's birth. 

Paolo De Coppi

The groundbreaking research was led by Paolo De Coppi. De Coppi is one of the top scientists within the international team conducting research on lung tissue repair within LONGFONDS | Accelerate. We know him from the 3D laboratory lung

“This is the first time that we’ve been able to make a functional assessment of a child’s congenital condition before birth, which is a huge step forward for prenatal medicine. 

When we meet families with a prenatal diagnosis, we’re often unable to tell them much about the outcome because each case is different. We’re not claiming that we can do that just yet, but the ability to study functional prenatal organoids is the first step towards being able to offer a more detailed prognosis and, hopefully, provide more effective treatments in future.”

Putting it to the test

The researchers from England and Belgium studied the development of babies with CHD. This is a condition where the baby has a hole in the diaphragm. As a result, organs such as the intestines and liver can move through that hole into the chest cavity. This prevents the lungs from growing properly.

The research compared mini-organs from healthy babies with those from babies with CHD. There were significant differences observed between the mini-organs. However, after treatment of the mini-organs from babies with CHD, the difference with healthy mini-organs became much smaller. This demonstrates the impact of treatment. 

Future prospects

The research is not immediately applicable, say the scientists. However, mini-organs cultivated from stem cells in amniotic fluid could be used in the future to test treatments. This could potentially shorten the time it takes to find a suitable treatment for a congenital condition. 

Currently, mini-lungs are still cultivated from epithelial cells of adult humans. Epithelial cells are the cells that line the inside of organs, such as the lungs. This method of development is time-consuming. And keeping lung organoids in culture for long periods of time is a known problem. Mini-lungs developed from stem cells in amniotic fluid grow faster and appear to be longer-lasting. This offers opportunities for conducting more and longer-term research. 

More about this revolutionary research can be found on the website of Nature Medicine: Single-cell guided prenatal derivation of primary fetal epithelial organoids from human amniotic and tracheal fluids | Nature Medicine.