Scientists in London report successfully directing human embryonic stem cells to become lung cells.

The experiment was done in a lab. The cells haven't been tested on humans. The results are due to appear in the journal Tissue Engineering.

Researchers working on the study included Julia Polak, MD, DSc, FRCPath, FMEDSci. She is a professor at Imperial College London, where she directs the Imperial College Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Centre.

According to Polak's online biography, she is also one of the longest survivors of a heart and lung transplant. The bio states that in 1995, Polak learned she had life-threatening pulmonary hypertension -- one of the conditions she was studying at the time -- and got a heart-lung transplant performed by one of her colleagues.

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About Stem Cells

Cells are the body's building blocks. Many specialize to fit their location and task. For instance, a brain cell isn't like a skin cell.

Stem cells haven't specialized yet. They're like blank slates, able to transform into specialized cells.

Stem cells from embryos may have the widest range of possibilities, though adults have stem cells, too. That potential has attracted interest from scientists worldwide, though embryonic stem cells have been controversial because of their source.

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About the Study

Polak and colleagues put human embryonic stem cells in a series of solutions, guiding them to become lung cells.

Specifically, the final result was lung cells known as mature small airway epithelium. Those cells line part of the lung where oxygen is absorbed and carbon dioxide is deleted.

The researchers write that they ultimately want to create a biomechanical unit in which gases can be exchanged (a key lung function). "Such a development will take some considerable time," they note.

Meanwhile, they write that it might be possible to get those cells into people with lung problems such as acute respiratory distress syndrome.

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'Very Exciting' News

"This is a very exciting development," says Polak in a news release.

The study "could be a huge step towards being able to build human lungs for transplantation or to repair lungs severely damaged by incurable diseases such as cancer," Polak continues.

"Although it will be some years before we are able to build actual human lungs for transplantation, this is a major step towards deriving cells that could be used to repair damaged lungs," says Anne Bishop, PhD, in the news release.

Bishop works at the Imperial College London's Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Centre.

According to the news release, the research team will commercialize their findings through the Imperial College spin-out company, NovaThera.

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SOURCES: Samadikuchaksaraei, A. Tissue Engineering. News release, Imperial College London.