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Lab-grown stomach gets scientists one step closer to a ‘human on a chip’

More people are affected by stomach diseases than heart disease. While in most cases this is in relatively minor ways, such as overproduction of acid or gastritis, in a growing number of instances it’s linked with gastric cancer — which affects around 26,370 people a year in the United States alone.

To find out more about stomachs and the effect of bacteria such as helicobacter pylori, researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center created a “Petri dish stomach,” complete with the ability to produce acid and digestive enzymes.

“What my lab has been doing for over a decade is trying to generate human organ tissues in a Petri dish,” Dr. James Wells, lead investigator, told Digital Trends. “Organ tissues represent a really good way of investigating human disease on a level that you can’t do by studying patients.”

The work, published in the journal Nature, describes how a functioning “organoid” model of a mini stomach can be grown from pluripotent stem cells, which can be grown into any tissue in a person. By “growing” a stomach, researchers get to watch how exactly diseases affect that particular part of the body — from what happens when too much acid builds up to how certain experimental drugs are able to help deal with inflammation.

A lab-grown piece of the human stomach, as seen under a microscope.

“We turn the stem cells into something which is effectively a functioning mini-stomach,” Wells continued. “It’s only a few millimeters in size, but it can produce acid, digestive enzymes, and respond to the cues that trigger your stomach to respond in different ways. In other words, while they are small, [Petri dish stomachs] have the same physiological properties as an actual stomach.”

The eventual goal, he said, is to develop a “human on a chip,” which would take the form of a credit card-sized device containing similar organoids for every organ in the human body. Eventually, these could be used to help treat patients.

“Organs that have to be removed because of damage or disease are very hard to replace, outside of organ donors, who there are a real shortage of,” he said. “In the future, we think it should be possible to scale up these mini organs into something that is a therapeutic transplant. That is the direction we’re headed in.”