Novel approach could streamline the creation of mini-organs.

US scientists have overcome a major stumbling block in the creation of mini-organs, programming cells to take on the desired shape rather than relying on 3D printing or external “scaffolds”.

This “inside out” approach, described in a paper in the journal Cell Systems, could signal a paradigm shift in how mini-hearts, kidneys and brains are grown on the lab bench – a technique used to study disease that may one day lead to personalised organ transplants.

The team, led by bioengineer Todd McDevitt at Gladstone Institutes in the US, was driven by an enduring issue with state-of-the-art ways of producing mini-organs such as 3D printing. The cells just won’t stay put.

Making a mini-organ or “organoid” starts when scientists take a person’s skin cell and, using the right mix of agents, turn it into an “induced pluripotent stem cell”. This IPS cell is the blank cheque of biology, capable of becoming almost any cell type.

Grow it into a mini-kidney, say, and you can reproduce kidney diseases and test treatments in a dish sitting on your lab bench. But how faithful that model is depends on the physical organisation of the cells; to mimic a real deal kidney, 3D printing is often used.

But cells, much like unruly teenagers, have a mind of their own and will often wander away from their printed position.

McDevitt’s team wanted to own those cellular minds and so took control of two genes that together make up something of a joystick that directs how the cells organise.

Read the full story in Cosmos magazine here