Imagine having a model to help predict personalized disease outcomes, or a way to determine if a treatment is effective on a mutation not every patient in a disease population has. Researchers have been culturing and treating “mini-organs” that develop and react to disease processes and medications like human organs, because they are grown from human stem cells.

Hans Clevers, the head of the Hubrecht Laboratory in Utrecht, the Netherlands, first developed a “mini-gut” that was used to help a patient with cystic fibrosis find the proper treatment. With many different mutations that can occur with the disease, finding the proper treatment was a difficult feat.

He began his work studying immune cells, which eventually led him to discover that a molecule and pathway that activated T-cells also played a role in the activation of cellular development and repair in embryonic cells. His fascination with stem cells took off, and he found himself along with his colleagues, Nick Barker and Toshiro Sato, digging through research. In 2007, they landed on the LGR5 receptors. These receptors are the markers that cause cells within the intestine to replicate. This finding led to the culturing of the LGR5-positive cells in a growth-factor rich medium, which grew the “mini-gut” from stem cells. The gut tissue was then treated with multiple medications used in cystic fibrosis patients to determine the proper course of action. The patient this “mini-gut” was personalized for responded exceptionally to the tailored treatment.

Since these discoveries many more “mini-organs” have been grown including liver, lung, prostate, and brain. Now the research is also focusing on disease processes, specifically with cancer. Tumor growth, development, and treatment options can essentially be personalized on a patient-by-patient case. Using this personalization to treat cancer still faces hurdles—culture time can vary and it is very expensive. Cancer can also mutate as it progresses which could mean a patient’s early state may not reflect their late state. Despite the hurdles, researchers are thrilled at the chance to overcome them. This discovery is a huge advancement in cancer research.

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Hans Clevers pioneered lab-built mini-organs that can serve as models of disease