Researchers have been making more progress of late in identifying and using stem cells that support intestinal tissue. A few years ago a research group managed to grow small amounts of intestinal tissue, and other similar demonstrations have been achieved since then. Here is an example of present work that should make it much easier to generate the type of cells needed for further research and development:
[Researchers] have shown that they can grow unlimited quantities of intestinal stem cells, then stimulate them to develop into nearly pure populations of different types of mature intestinal cells. Using these cells, scientists could develop and test new drugs to treat diseases such as ulcerative colitis.
The small intestine, like most other body tissues, has a small store of immature adult stem cells that can differentiate into more mature, specialized cell types. Until now, there has been no good way to grow large numbers of these stem cells, because they only remain immature while in contact with a type of supportive cells called Paneth cells.
In a new study [the] researchers found a way to replace Paneth cells with two small molecules that maintain stem cells and promote their proliferation. Stem cells grown in a lab dish containing these molecules can stay immature indefinitely; by adding other molecules, including inhibitors and activators, the researchers can control what types of cells they eventually become.
If scientists could obtain large quantities of intestinal epithelial stem cells, they could be used to help treat gastrointestinal disorders that damage the epithelial layer. Recent studies in animals have shown that intestinal stem cells delivered to the gut can attach to ulcers and help regenerate healthy tissue, offering a potential new way to treat ulcerative colitis.