Scientists from Imperial College London have made a huge medical leap by converting embryonic stem cells – the precursors to every cell in the body – into lung cells. This marks the first step towards growing human lungs for transplantation.

The research, which will be published in the journal Tissue Engineering, took human embryonic stem cells and encouraged them to convert into the cells needed for gas exchange in the lung, ie. where oxygen is absorbed and carbon dioxide is excreted. The investigations have taken place using stem cells derived from embryos, but the scientists say the next step is to test the system using stem cells from other (perhaps less controversial) sources – including umbilical cord blood and bone marrow.

Dame Professor Julia Polak, from ICL, who led the research team, says: “This is a very exciting development, and 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.”

While the end plan of building lungs for transplantation is several years off, the researchers say they hope to use their findings after initial lab testing to treat problems such as acute respiratory distress syndrome, which currently kills many intensive care patients. By injecting stem cells that will become lung cells, they hope to be able to repopulate the lung lining in these patients.

The team will commercialise their findings through the Imperial College spin out company NovaThera.